Thursday, November 16, 2017
I read an interesting New York Times article by Steven Erlanger on the afterglow of the Brexit vote last weekend which seems to tie in with some earlier points I have made on this blog over the years regarding how the sub-national outplay of the dissolution of the United Kingdom - as first critically analysed in the mid-Seventies by the Marxist writer Tom Nairn - has thrown up as much if not more socio-cultural discord in the English heartland as within the Celtic littoral. That not withstanding the grotesque political paralysis in Ulster caused by one particular party or the qualifications facing Scotland in negotiating a genuine national independence within the constructs of a splintering European Union.
As another desperate year of stagnation in Europe moves to closure I am personally drawn in my mind to a new formulation of post-war British history wherein the gradual storm-like descent into fundamentally irreversible political conflict and communal disunity can be traced on both sides of the Irish Sea from the late Forties onwards. The strengths of the tidal surges and the violent impact of the breaking waves may have differed but the end result has proved remarkably similar by way of today's broad-based discontent, high personal angst, the unsustainability of such a civic imbalance and a garnering disconnectivity with our past.
In the case of Northern Ireland I feel that the withdrawal of the Irish Republic from the British Commonwealth in 1948 by the Fine Gael/Clann na Poblachta coalition - a party political move which had no major public dynamic underpinning its execution, originated in a diplomatic snub against Taoiseach John Costello in Canada by the Governor-General and singlehandedly destroyed the relatively nonpartisan Labour movement in the North by default - was actually the first significant transitionary and indeed tectonic shift towards the years of bedlam which lay two decades ahead and now can be seen as an extremely fateful turning point. Mainland Britain's socio-political problems likewise lie deep in our modern history and had equally sobering consequences.
The mismanagement and subsequent fudging of the Brexit vote by the British political establishment in turn appears by the day now to represent the approach of something fundamentally terminal in our social history - particularly in regard to the failure of mainstream media to reflect the clear-as-daylight dynamics behind the populist surge. The same British media of course that has been selectively dumb about the future shock foibles of the past decade regarding frozen private sector salaries and firestorm house prices affecting the vast majority of people with no secondary sources of income in reserve.
The immobile leaden atmosphere evident in the aftermath of the Brexit vote now seems to be coalescing in the theatre of living history as some form of latter day and particularly lumbering Ghost Dance - the religious movement of the native American Indians at the end of the 19th century which in part was predicated in making the white colonists leave and bring co-operation and unity to the Indian people in its wake. In turn, and beyond all qualifications, our country clearly faces the future in a state of social, ethical and particularly industrial inversion to the better world we appeared to have entered in the early Fifties. All bridges now burned - all quick fixes now exhausted.
Monday, October 2, 2017
I remember once reading a thread on the "Exiles" section of the main Belfast history internet forum where a lady in her sixties from Canada wistfully recalled the good old days and the friends she left behind. She mentioned three of them by name in the hope that the possibility may arise in the scary new digital world that somebody would know them and there might be a way to re-establish contact. The first reply from a jet black Ulster cyber-humourist simply noted: "They're all dead".
My first interface with the fateful circularity of life came as a child when I was watching one of those old compendium of clips from Laurel and Hardy movies - I cannot pinpoint the specific feature but it
included the famous Way Out West sequence of their charming soft-shoe shuffle outside a saloon bar. On asking my mother about their whereabouts thereafter I was informed that alas they were gone in body and spirit. A crushing and literally tearful blow I recall to this day.
For many people in their forties and fifties Laurel and Hardy were a mainstay of television viewing in their youth. In hindsight, and while cross-referencing their filmography, I can distinctly recall seeing the entireity of their 1929-1935 talking shorts output on the small screen. These were often transmitted around the 6pm slot on BBC2 in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Likewise for all thirteen of their Hal Roach- directed feature films made between 1931 and 1940. I also remember that Channel 4 showed some of the later Twentieth Century Fox and RKO features during the Nineties - A-Haunting We Will Go, Air Raid Wardens, The Big Noise etc - though these were essentially of interest to movie buffs only by virtue of their status as some of the worst films ever made (through no fault of the artists' doing).
One of the final Laurel and Hardy features to be generally well regarded - and which I have recently revisited - was 1940's A Chump At Oxford. In this film Stan and Ollie are a pair of total witless eejits in America who manage to foil a bank raid. The kindly and decent bank manager subsequently offers them a reward of their own choosing. Being conscious of being complete morons they decide upon "an education". They are subsequently dispatched to Oxford University England while dressed as Eton schoolboys - as fifty year olds.
On arriving in Oxford the world's most beloved comedy duo are mercilessly harried and bullied by the resident sneering and well-heeled students including a particularly young Peter Cushing. They are directed to their digs by way of a maze and - while lost therein - are practically scared to death by a genuinely terrifying apparition of a ghost-demon which of course is nothing more than a merciless prank by the resident privelaged rotters. Their accomodation also turns out to be the Dean's residence and he is well furious at the turn of events in his cosy academic ivory tower.
This of course is trumped by Stan Laurel bashing his head and transforming into Lord Paddington - the ultimate upper-class arrogant braggard imaginable. Ear-wiggling and monocoled Paddington physically thrashes the student body ranged against him before turning on his erstwhile buddy Ollie and tormenting him mercilessly. From calling him "Fatty" every minute to denigrating his obesity and physical bearing alike, it is truly painful to watch even seven decades later. Stan finally snaps out of his reverie but not before directly inducing Oliver Hardy's nervous breakdown.
This ten minute segment alone - as an extraordinary prefiguring of modern British political and social culture - is a priceless moment of magnificent comedy and arguably one of the highlights in the entire career of Ulverston's finest son Arthur Stanley Jefferson. The rock group Mott The Hoople once reflected upon the light-year distance between the Liverpool docks and the Hollywood Bowl. Cumbria to Culver City in the early 20th Century was certainly no mean feat either let's face it. Take some time and watch it through. Time has been very kind to a lot of Laurel and Hardy material - even the introduction to the RKO Dancing Masters feature is quite hilarious with Oliver Hardy's toddler clowning on the dancefloor with some Gil Elvgrenesque beauties while his lapses into folksy down home Southern patter as at the end of Way Out West never fails to raise a warm smile.
After their movie careers ended with the dispiriting mess of Atoll K, Messrs Laurel and Hardy peformed on stage in many UK and European theatrical venues in the late Forties and early Fifties. In June 1952 they appeared for a fortnight at The Grand Opera House in downtown Belfast. During their visit they stayed in a fan-besieged Midland Hotel near York Road station in the north of the city. The pair had their hair cut in the local Whitla Street barbers - a fact subsequently advertised prominently by the business - and some recollections of the visit gathered online talk of the couple walking with their wives in the nearby Sailortown district and tipping a busker outside the Great Victoria Street venue they played at. One individual remembered how their West Belfast grandmother saw the couple on the Dublin train and how Oliver Norvell Hardy responded to a compliment from the lady by wiggling his tie and saying "Thank you ma'am". The late Belfast comedian Frank Carson also would recollect shaking their hands at the Midland Hotel entrance. A feature on the visit produced by the Belfast online movie review website Banterflix references a possible meeting the pair had with the legendary lion-wrestling Belfast hardman extraordinaire Buck Alec and a seaside visit to Bangor's Tonic cinema to judge a singing competition.
The show that Laurel and Hardy peformed in Belfast was named A Spot of Trouble and was based on their 1930 short Night Owls. During the time in Northern Ireland Stan Laurel was taken ill and spent a brief period in either the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road or Musgrave Park in South Belfast - online information differs. The Stan Laurel Correspondance Archive includes a letter sent from the Midland Hotel dated the 24th June that references his pending hospital stay and the scale of the welcome in Ireland:
Haven't had much chance to get down to personal correspondence due to the exciting visit to Ireland. Being our first time here, they went ALL OUT to give us a true Irish Welcome and didn't miss a thing. Bus. as you can imagine was enormous - broke house record here (57 years).
Prior to the Grand Opera House dates the comedians had performed in Dublin's Olympia Theatre on O'Connell Street and stayed at the Gresham Hotel on the same thoroughfare. In the following year of
1953 Laurel and Hardy resided for 33 nights at Dun Laoghaire's Royal Marine Hotel (as pictured above) and pending a one-night performance at The Olympia for a polio charity. A return visit to Belfast on this trip to the British Isles had to be cancelled because of Hardy's visa problems. This was also the Irish visit so often mentioned because of the resounding harbour welcome the people of Cork gave the actors on the 9th September which they would remember for the rest of their lives - Stan Laurel recalling:
It's a strange, a strange thing, our popularity has lasted so long. Our last good pictures were made in the thirties, and you'd think people would forget, but they don't. The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable. There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn't understand what is was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cobh started to ring out our theme song, and Babe looked at me, and we cried. Maybe people loved us and our pictures because we put so much love in them. I don't know. I'll never forget that day. Never.
It is sixty five years now since Laurel and Hardy visited my home town. The once grand Midland is finished as a hotel business and is derelict to my knowledge, York Road Railway Station is demolished and much of residential York Street and Sailortown long gone. The Grand Opera House and the Europa Hotel next door however survived the thirty years of grotesque and politically pointless terror that came to pass and of which the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Musgrave saw much of the bloody consequences.
A certain seven-year-old boy resident in Belfast at the time of the comedians' visit grew up to change the world of football and pop culture forever while an eight-year-old Donegal boy who arrived to live in Cork just three years after the famous appearance of the Hollywood stars in Cobh Harbour went on to produce some the most timeless electric blues rock ever on vinyl and stage. George Best and Rory Gallagher never forgot Belfast City - it would appear that Belfast and Ireland too left its mark on the greatest comics in history. All four beautiful souls long gone from this world but still casting an extraordinary light into our dark and utterly desperate times.
Monday, September 4, 2017
Been recently reading some very well-researched and humorous overviews of solo Beatles material on the Holy Bee of Epheus blog. The rollercoaster quality ranging from I Found Out to The Luck of the Irish, Junior's Farm to Wonderful Christmastime, I'd Have You Anytime to Ding Dong, It Don't Come Easy to No No Song. The same author has also recently put together some sound reviews of the post-Exile on Main Street period of the The Rolling Stones' career which covered the three often overlooked mid-Seventies albums Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock n Roll and Black and Blue.
Some months after the latter release the Stones appeared at the 21st August 1976 Knebworth Fair in Hertfordshire in England. This was the third major concert to be held on the grounds of Knebworth House - in July 1974 the Bucolic Frolic drew a 60,000 crowd to see a line-up headed by The Allman Brothers Band while the following July 100,000 attended the Knebworth Festival to watch Pink Floyd and others.
In 1976 five acts supported The Rolling Stones who appeared very late in the evening and would not finish their set until 2am - these were Todd Rundgren, Jefferson Airplane offshoot Hot Tuna, 10CC, The Don Harrison Band whose rhythm section were Creedance Clearwater Revival's Stu Cook and Doug Clifford and of course Lynyrd Skyrnd.
The seaport of Jacksonville in North Florida would steal the entire day from surburban Dartford Kent on the River Derwent - Lynyrd Skynyrd performed third in the bill before 10CC and their eleven-track Southern Rock set makes for extraordinary viewing to this day. It has never been forgotten in British rock history as one of the most amazing live superstar performances ever - and by a support act at that. The electrifying picture of singer Ronnie Van Zant punching the air at the lip of the stage with guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins - with a Confederate battle flag to the forefront amongst the ecstatic 120,000 crowd - remains perhaps the most instantly recognisable image of the group for tens of thousands of music fans over the world to this day.
Growing up in Belfast in the Eighties - long after the 1977 Mississippi plane crash that killed three of the band's lineup - I had a double album compilation of the group but at the time never really got fired up on their music beyond the classic rock station stalwarts of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama. In recent months however Lynyrd Skynyrd's music has really came together for me over the course of some prolonged listening and it is quite clear that - like Little Feat - they represented an unparalleled fusion of incredible individual virtuosity, raw passion and deep soul on both album and stage.
Between 1973 and 1977 the group released five studio albums - Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, Second Helping, Nuthin Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets and Street Survivors. The existent fanbase seems to have certain qualitative reservations about the third and fourth albums though I personally cannot hear that significant a downturn - from the pallid and bereft perspective of 2017 anyway. Tracks such as Simple Man, Poison Whiskey, The Needle and the Spoon, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Saturday Night Special, On The Hunt, Every Mother's Son, Searching, One More Time and That Smell are utterly magnificent - driven, thoughtful, exciting and intelligent by turn. Workin for MCA may indeed be the most underrated Seventies hard rock song in the entire genre - check out the cool Hamburg concert footage of this track from 1974 on youtube for original guitarist Ed King's smokin' smoking alone.
Soberingly of course, if one looks at footage of the Knebworth concert from that endless summer of 1976, seven members of the ten musicians on stage have now passed on. Beyond Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his backing singer sister Cassie - who all died in the crash - four others are no longer here. These are bassist Leon Wilkinson, guitarist Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell and backing singer Jo Jo Billingsley. The original drummer Bob Burns was killed in a car accident two years ago as well.
After 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd under various lineups have produced nine further albums to date - the two original guitarists also put out a pair of albums as the Rossington Collins Band in 1980 and 1981 with a further short-lived Allen Collins Band releasing one more album in 1983. I know little about the later Lynyrd Skynrd material so far though have found the three other albums mentioned very listenable.
Gene Odom's biography of the band from 2002 - which includes a fantastic black and white picture of Rossington, Collins and Powell strutting down a dreary British high street that is worth the price of the book alone - also lists fairly comprehensive tour information. With other dates and venues gleaned from online it appears Skynyrd played 48 gigs in the four years between 1974 and 1977 in England, Scotland and Wales.
In 1974 the group played in Glasgow November 14th, Edinburgh November 15th, Newcastle November 16th, Liverpool November 18th, Bradford November 19th, Birmingham November 20th, London November 23rd, Leicester November 26th, Manchester November 27th, Brighton November 28th, Bristol November 29th, Southend-on-Sea November 30th, Bournemouth December 1st and London December 2nd.
For 1975 the venues were Portsmouth 25th October, Birmingham 26th October, London 27th October, Brighton 28th October, Liverpool 30th October, Sheffield 31st October, Glasgow 1st November, Oxford 3rd November, Cardiff 4th November and London 5th November.
In early 1976 they played in Bristol on 10th February, Manchester 11th February, Glasgow 13th February, Leeds 14th February and London the following day. In August two days before Knebworth they performed on the 19th in Hemel Hempstead.
Finally in early 1977 a British tour incorporated London on the 27th-29th January, Bristol 31st January, Portsmouth 1st February, Birmingham 2nd February, Manchester 4th February, Sheffield 5th February, Liverpool 6th February, Newcastle 8th February, Glasgow 9th February, Lancaster 12th February, Leeds 13th February and their last ever British concert was at Leicester on the 14th.
Other European countries that the band performed in over these years included West Germany, Holland, Belgium and France - Lynyrd Skynyrd never appeared to have played in either part of Ireland. The specific venues for the London gigs over the four years were at Finsbury Park's Rainbow Theatre in 1974 and 1977 - long gone as a concert venue - and the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and 1976. Their famous performance for the Old Grey Whistle Test was recorded at the BBC Television Theatre Shepherds Bush Green on November 11th 1975.
Many of the memories and reminiscences of the group at Knebworth 41 years ago that can be found across the internet appear of similar dumbfounded regard to seeing Georgie Best's explosive breakthrough into public consciousness in the September 1964 midweek match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - this from the ukrockfestivals website will suffice entirely:
Then Lynyrd Skynrd hit the stage in mid afternoon and the whole place just lit up. They played that incredible, now legendary set. Great, good times boogie rock n roll with lashings of rich guitar playing. Lanky Alan Collins was a very striking figure, dressed all in red like the stage, he became the focal point visually. Huge flares, impossibly long hair and a jutting Gibson Firebird. "Freebird" was the greatest moment of the whole festival and perhaps the greatest of any live performance I have ever seen, for the generosity of the musicians and the sheer joy of the crowd. Thousands of people jumping around and cheering in unison. As the barefoot Ronnie Van Zant sang the last refrain, he threw his mike and its stand over the back of the amp stacks, took Collins under one arm and Rossington under the other, and led them down the sloping stage to the crowd, as the two began their furious soloing, it seemed to last forever, coming to a long drawn out final crunch in front of a standing ovation. An impossible act to follow.
This year I have been properly reacquainting myself with the music of Lynyrd Skynrd having left London permanently and taking a few months away from that rank madness in a truly beautiful North European country. At the start of the summer on some days here I even saw a real life Freebird eagle type thing flying over the next field to where I am staying - no shit.
Listening to the lyrics of the band - which cover a lot of ground within the human condition as regards kinship bonds and life priorities alone - they reflect such a contrast to the times I left behind in Britain. The Ponzi greed that has toxified the soul of London and much of the country, a Kafkaesque job market which seems to offer up the polar opposite of everything libertarian souls claim to aspire to on social media, rundown and seedy public infrastructure, mainstream media silence on both historic demographic shifts and their even more sobering secessionist consequences, the cultural marxist remodelling of every complex historical issue under the sun for peurile adolescent mindsets and the general air of sadness and directionless. 1976 was a long long time ago for all its own godawful problems with bogeymen unions, butcher dentists and damp sparkplugs in the winter.
The folk tales of Lynyrd Skynrd of course recall communities forged in financial hardship and want
but also flag up the positive aspects of a simpler and less cluttered life away from the speed, harshness and fetidity of modern urban existence. The appeal this offers to so many of my own middle-aged peer group today - our future security clinically betrayed on every socio-economic front imaginable by pure short-term venality - is now overwhelming. Ironically the very same future in fact that four generations of my own family fought and put their lives on the line for I assume.
Much of the social culture of the American South of course - and indeed the blood composition of its now vilified military formations who fought bravely from Manassas through to Appomattox Court House and right up to Stonewall Jackson himself - originated geneologically from the historic Scots-Irish Presbyterian footprint that arrived in British America from Ulster in the 18th Century. The irony is not lost on me - and many contemporary visitors alike - how in the modern United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is one of the few regions to have retained a deep rooted sense of place, moral decency, spiritual faith and individual warmth for all the bad history the country has had to work through together.
From their very early material recorded in 1971 at Muscle Shoals Alabama such as Comin Home and Was I Right Or Was I Wrong and through to I Never Dreamed and What's Your Name on the final Street Survivors album the vista of Lynyrd Skynyrd's music touchs upon loss, regret, love, lust, brotherhood and ethics - the common sense fundamentals of life and how to live it well.
Truly in our beginning is our end.
Every time you feed that face
Do you look around
For somebody right in your own neighborhood
Sleepin out on the ground
If you've ever felt the pain inside
I know you'd understand
When you see somebody who's down and out
Lend a helpin' hand
Monday, June 19, 2017
Last month I watched two fantastic pieces of vintage British television horror. Shalcken The Painter was the 1979 continuation of the festive A Ghost Story for Christmas slot on the BBC and whose plot revolved around an artist’s lost love and her terrible fate. The Beast was an episode of the West Country Tales series of the early Eighties involving a city dweller’s encounter with a ghastly aggressive entity in the Cornish woods - the creature being played by the familiar character actor and former wrestler Milton Reid who can be seen in three of Mary Millington’s features.
In light of the latter work I have recently finished Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell which was published some months ago. Forging beyond the main cinematic trilogy associated with this sub-genre - Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw - and the short stories of MR James, the book incorporates analysis of a truly comprehensive scope of Sixties, Seventies and Eighties film and television material from the Play for Today features Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen to the Hammer horrors Plague of the Zombies and The Witches and the Dr Who Jon Pertwee serials The Sea Devils and The Daemons.
Beyond the obvious association of these works with the British landscape and countryside - and of course the occult - there is consideration of similarly eerie creative dynamics that were transfused into urban settings right through to Public Information Films for children in the Seventies. The writing is academic in part but it was still a fascinating read and comes highly recommended.
In a not dissimilar context some months ago I read Thomas Sheridan’s absolutely intriguing fourth book The Druid Code. I am huge fan of Sheridan’s work by way of his Velocity of Now broadcasts and the incredibly interesting discussion of politics and Forteana to be found on his youtube channel and website.
At first I expected this book to have considerably less appeal to me than his previous book Walpurgis Night on the occult roots of Nazism but found it an extradordinary deconstruction of ancient British and Irish history as relating to the complexity of megalithic remains across the British Archipelago, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. It also traces the passage of magic theory from druidic sources into witchcraft and freemasonry. Years ago I got engaged to my partner at the Holestone in Doagh in County Down and in turn have visited many of the places that Sheridan talks about in Ireland and the English West Country. Sheridan is both an insightful mind and a genuinely good humorous soul - his recent documentary works on occult Dublin and the mythology of Germany’s Odenwald Forest have been exemplary.
Both of these books of course hold particular relevance at this time of acute political and cultural strain in Britain as harking back to the purest of connections with our folk past - yet untrammeled and unsullied in this world of avarice, directionlessness and idiocy.
Saturday, June 10, 2017
This week has seen some extraordinary political developments across the British Isles - in Northern Ireland alone the shocking electoral outplay for Unionism equals the February 1974 victory of the United Ulster Unionist Council albeit this time within the remit of a sole political party who have become the Kingmakers of the next UK government.
The off-message nature of much Democratic Unionist Party discourse over the years should of course have seen the organisation wither on the metaphorical vine following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - to the secular benefit of the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance and even New Loyalism - but the outplay has proved radically different.
As this blog has noted on many occasions, the historical revisionism attached to much post-Troubles discourse from Irish Republican sources has proved both toxic and unrelenting. The price for the broad stroke rebranding of the takers of human life as folk heroes without equivocation has clearly now been paid in kind while mainstream British media stayed silent throughout.
The same selective dumbness from the major news outlets of course affected the sole fundamental demographic explanation for the Brexit vote. Or even the slight moral dichotomy of the leader of the British Party of Labour having historically expressed less than due regard for the wellbeing of thousands of working class English, Scottish and Welsh soldiers who staved off a civil war in Ulster that threatened my own street and doorstep.
British politics today appears mired within a confluence of deeply complex and contradictory economic, social and cultural dynamics. Any restorative move towards civic respect, structural stability and genuine progression will embark upon a long lonely journey across a desolate British landscape.
That vista in turn transfigured by a decade of fake media, the asset stripping of millions of Britons’ futures by employers and banks, the infrastructural devastation of our capital city, gormless political imbecility of the general public, the immoral filth of the Ponzi property scam, unbridgeable class division and a national sub-psyche of profound disappointment in all that has came to pass on this bitter wind.
Monday, May 15, 2017
Some considerably edgy kulturkampf over the civic funding of Gaelic in Northern Ireland of late - a fascinating subject in its own right with regard to the reach and endurance of the languages in modern Ireland and Scotland, where it sits linguistically alongside Welsh within the British Isles' Book of Invasions, the undeniably politicised dynamics of its usage in modern Ulster and the logic behind the current outreach to learners from the Protestant tradition in the North.
Yet there is still so little comprehensible clarification in the midst as to the actual linkage between Irish and Scottish Gaelic as it relates to the history of the Irish Gaels' footprint in Western Scotland, King James I's Protestant Plantation of Ireland or even the concept of a Pictish settlement in Ulster back in long ago and far away ancient times. A member of the public tried to comment intelligently and analytically on this last week on a BBC Radio Ulster phone-in I was listening to and obviously exhausted the presenter's 21st Century attention span very quickly.
Certainly whereas the promotion of Ulster Scots dialect since the Eighties may well have proved an essentially mischievous driver of cultural regeneration for northern Unionists it is quite clear in the outplay of Brexit that the concomitant notion of a specific Ulster Scots identity was significant, timely, underplayed and alas unappreciated. This particularly with regard to the role of Ulstermen at war and in North American history or even the role of Francis Hutcheson in the Scottish Enlightenment (born in Saintfield in County Down in 1694). Indeed the rebranding of The Troubles as an intra-Celtic/Irish-Scottish conflict (in however qualified remit) could have fundamentally redefined the bitterness in time between two peoples who essentially rub along "okay" in the scale of things.
Interesting book I have just finished on Northern Ireland history by the way was Richard Bourke's 2012 Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas - not an easy read but an incredibly important contribution to the political debate in his presentation of the Ulster Troubles as a consequence of competing yet essentially legitimate conceptions of democracy as opposed to more routine readings of ethnic and religious fractures.
Will definitely look forward to similar enlightenment in years ahead as to what the previous decade of my London life was all about - how exactly the biblical demographic shifts, the Ponzi property scamming, the infrastructural collapse, the lack of a serious party political choice in a fundamentally flawed electoral system, the garnering urban aggression, faking of news and the frozen salaries together somehow positively underpinned my financial well-being from my considerable labours, my core liberality and my big scary grown-up faith in a better (albeit medium term) future.
Either way I will be reading such analysis at that point from a different location - the lack of both a vanguard and a rearguard in our national political culture (as referenced some posts ago) have succeeded to such an extent that my thirty year sojourn in London now comes to an end. Saturday Buddha will commence World Broadcasts again soon from another place and a better tomorrow.....
Friday, May 12, 2017
This month sees the release of Hopdance by Ireland's Lilliput Press - the Ulster playwright Stewart Parker's autobiographical novel that he had worked upon in the Seventies and Eighties but was uncompleted at the time of his death from cancer in 1988. It is in turn centered on his experiences of having a leg amputated from the same disease while at university in Belfast.
The book is edited by Marylinn Richtarik whose long comprehensive overview of the artist's life I have just completed reading this evening. Alike Johnny Rogan's biography of Van Morrison the work is grounded on genuinely fascinating narratives of Irish social history alongside the profound changes affecting the commercial constructs of stage performance, broadcast media and cinema production during his lifetime.
I was very lucky to have seen Parker's final play Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in London's Hammersmith in 1989 - it remains for me the finest piece of drama I have seen on stage in my life. The eleventh hour political detente witnessed in Ulster following the death of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness certainly resonates with the religous undertones of the play's melancholy denouement. Set during the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike - yet the most successful industrial stoppage of the European working class since the Second World War - it in turn reflected the desperate zero-sum game political turmoil in Northern Ireland in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Parker is remembered in the main for his stage plays Spokesong and Catchpenny Twist, the BBC Play for Today productions of Iris in the Traffic Ruby in the Rain and The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, the award-winning ITV Playhouse feature I'm A Dreamer Montreal, London Weekend Television's Blue Money with Tim Curry, the Channel 4 series Lost Belongings and his extraordinary Northern Star telling of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion leader Henry Joy McCracken's life and execution. Further to his work being so heavily grounded in Irish history - and the perennial cultural fractures that impinged so strongly on community and personal relationships - Richtarik's biography also noted further projects that never saw dramatic fruition including works on the 19th Century Land League campaign and the internment of Allied and Axis servicemen in Eire during the 1939-45 Emergency.
Will just take the opportunity here to especially flag up Parker's High Pop rock and folk album reviews for the Irish Times which were compiled some time ago by Belfast's Lagan Press. This is an utterly exceptional collection of vintage music journalism - Parker's reviews being tight, funny, enthusiastic and highly informed. It includes many albums recorded by Parker's personal favorites which clearly included Steely Dan, The Band and Joni Mitchell but the critques cover a huge amount of artists and styles in the 1970-76 period from The Incredible String Band to Dr Feelgood. His reviews of Lennon's Some Time in New York City and Dylan's Self-Portrait in particular are utterly unreserved. This is an incredibly warm, interesting and witty book in itself and merits many a return reference - do find a space for this on your bookshelf if you are a music fan of the period.
Parker grew up in Sydenham in Protestant East Belfast across the dual carriageway and railway line from the modern day George Best Airport. His funeral took place there too though he had lived the latter part of his life in South West London and previously in Edinburgh. Parker's ashes were to be scattered from the Larne-Stranraer ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea - an irreverent yet deeply symbolic farewell to the restless natives of Britain and Ireland from a true radical and a man of profound intelligence and heart.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
A strange, laboured and frankly bewildered atmosphere lingers by the day here in post-Brexit Britain and the radically-rebranded "World City" of London - the true triggers behind the transatlantic populist wave being avoided at all costs by mainstream media though every dog in the street knows what they are. Likewise for every fox, badger and water vole outside our towns and cities.
This criminal failing of broadcast, print and digital media to give a head to crucial public discourse over the pending historic crossroads is of huge import - this leaving the British people with neither a vanguard nor a rearguard in the months ahead.
In Northern Ireland last week the funeral of former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness threw up ethical and moral questions of yet more Byzantine nature - the comparatively enhanced political intelligence of the population there at least being given more scope to be aired by local media outlets.
As discussed some posts ago the reconciliation of the peoples of Ireland - nationally, communally and individually - is still a light in our dark times in Western Europe. The complex nature of the Troubles - be that grounded within strained Anglo-Irish relations or broad intra-Celtic conflict - have left a fragile peace and many open-ended questions behind regarding guilt, memory, loss and remembrance. This encapsulated none moreso than with regard to the choreography of last week's events in County Londonderry which presented an unforgettable tableau of the long historic outplay of the British in Ireland against the sobering reality of Christian forgiveness.
The attendance of the former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster at St Columba's Church - alike that of Sinn Fein figures at the East Belfast funeral of the Progressive Unionist Party's David Ervine some years ago - and the delivery of two warm and reflective speeches from leading Protestant clergymen truly underscored the socio-political paradigm shifts that have taken root since the mid-Nineties.
Martin McGuinness' place in British and Irish history is of an extraordinarily unique nature - with no truly exact mirror thrown up within Ulster unionism or loyalism - and it has been right that this week the voice of terrorist victims have been given due prominence. Falling within that latter category myself I remain cogniscent - as does virtually the entire Protestant community in Ulster - of the specific and utterly degrading milestones of McGuinness' paramilitary career. Yet in turn I accept that his transition to political playmaker was genuinely inclusive beyond the Stalinist rhetoric of Irish republicanism, that his physical loss is presently detrimental to the health of Irish political life and that discussion of his moral mark upon Irish history lies essentially within the realms of extremely complex theological debate.
In March 1922 during the first Troubles in Northern Ireland the Northern Premier James Craig and Irish Provisional Government leader Michael Collins agreed a pact in London that aimed to contain the cycles of violence then sweeping across the north of the island and ease political and economic restrictions affecting the Catholic community. The document's dramatic first four words were Peace Is Today Declared. That would not turn out to be the physical result on the mean streets of Belfast and over a bloody divided Ulster in the early Twenties. Likewise certain diplomatic attendances and particular handshakes the world saw in Derry City last week will not necessarily encapsulate a final transition to peace - no matter how emotionally moving and genuinely iconic. But it was yet a good day for Ireland, a sterling example of politically mature reserve by all parties and a memorable example of how fractured societies can perhaps come to terms with genuinely very bad history.
In a final television interview Martin McGuinness made reference as to how the epitaph of Irish songwriter William Percy French could have applied directly to his own life - French being the author of the famous Mountains of Mourne standard which compares genuine community and family priorities to a value-free chase for fleeting financial reward in London. That comment does indeed cast a very thought-provoking afterglow on McGuinness' individual political journey with the Reverend Ian Paisley and also on high-risk pathways towards genuine reconciliation in Ireland. The end goal being a long-deserved and permanent peace for its fundamentally decent, warm, intelligent and good natured peoples.
Remember me is all I ask,
And yet- if the remembrance prove a task,
Friday, March 3, 2017
I caught the recently released documentary about George Best last Saturday at the cinema in London. In general a fairly pedestrian haul through the usual milestones and recollections though the section on his time in the North American Soccer League was put together in an engaging way and there was some news footage I had never seen before. However the actual sporting archive clips were all well-worn choices yet oddly left out the two most famous of all his Seventies goals which were scored in the rain and the sunshine respectively against Chelsea and Sheffield United.
There was also little Northern Ireland international footage despite rare film being available on youtube for quite some time of the November 1970 game against Spain and the February 1971 match against Cyprus - also his final international performance against Holland in October 1977. In fact on the day I uploaded this post I came across further material from the 1971 and 1977 away matches against the USSR and West Germany. The ongoing absence in the public domain of material from the famous Rotterdam game against the Dutch in 1976 - his last truly great performance for his country - remains utterly inexplicable.
In general the documentary was something of an opportunity lost on this occasion. There was no social contextualisation about Northern Ireland and the Troubles in the new documentary - a particular failing in light of the success of Irish rugby union in bridging vintage national division around a broadly generic cultural calling without any noticeable rancour or controversy. The use of subtitles on various pieces of footage was odd in the extreme too in light of Best's highly attractive, warm, rich and distinctly crystal-clear Ulster brogue.
The last word on George Best still remains the Duncan Hamilton biography Immortal - overall the story of his fall from grace becomes more desperately sad and terribly futile with the passing of each year.
As discussed in an earlier blog post, George Best played only 37 times for Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1977. Eighteen of these matches were at Windsor Park in Belfast. The onset of civil war in Ulster in the Seventies meant that several Northern Ireland home matches were played at English grounds - hence the February 1972 home tie against Spain being played at Boothferry Park in Hull. There is one picture I have often seen of Best taking a corner with both British policemen and fans gathered in very close proximity behind him - by process of elimination this is either that Spanish fixture or the April 1970 Home International against Wales at the Vetch Field in Swansea.
Best's matches at Windsor were played out against Uruguay, England and Switzerland in 1964; Holland, Albania and Scotland in 1965; England in 1966; Scotland in 1967; Turkey in 1968; England, Wales and the USSR in 1969; Scotland in 1970; Cyprus, England and Wales in 1971 and then Iceland and Holland in 1977.
The 1967 match against Scotland is generally accepted as his finest international performance while the World Cup qualifier two years later against the USSR is the source of the oft-repeated slow-motion action clips under the Windsor Park unreserved stand's public health advice to smoke Gallaher's - Northern Ireland's First Name in Tobacco.
Best was sent off in the 1970 match against Scotland for throwing mud at the referee while the 1971 England Home International included the globally famous Gordon Banks incident - youtube contains other footage of this match with him openly taunting English players to take the ball off him to the crowd's raucous delight. The Welsh match in the same year I assume is where another famous clip originates - Best cockily pretending to kick his football with extreme force, prejudice and intent into a shirking defender's bollocks. The BBC managed to destroy all footage of Best's 1971 hat trick in Belfast against Cyprus. Incidentally, the iconic footage of Best passing the ball to a colleague while holding his boot in one hand is possibly from a Home International tie against Scotland at Hampden Park - 1969 or 1971.
Northern Ireland's national stadium is of course the home ground of Linfield football club in south Belfast - I attended several matches here with my maternal grandfather in the mid-Seventies when I was a kid. In terms of the players I particularly remember - Peter "Bald Eagle" Rafferty, the Malone brothers, Eric Magee, Billy Millen, Davy Nixon, Ivan McAllister etc - this may well have been the 1975-76 season. The first match I saw there was a 6-1 victory over Cliftonville - Ireland's oldest football club.
In an earlier post I mentioned Gareth Mulvenna's recent study of the teenage loyalist Tartan Gangs of the early Seventies and how a particularly voracious element in West Belfast who were Linfield supporters were regularly engaged in significant acts of civil disorder with the police constabulary, army squaddies and the Catholic community at particular city interfaces. A recent Belfast Telegraph article by Malachi O'Doherty made interesting reference in turn to an earlier pre-Troubles riot in the Falls Road as linked to Linfield supporters returning from a match against Distillery in 1964 that I was not aware of.
Last month I also flicked through the centenary history of Linfield written in 1985 by the late Malcolm Brodie. The work doesn't shirk from the political back story associated with the club over the years - alike mirrored sectarian football divisions across from the Lagan on Clydeside - and the outplay of the same in crowd disorder. This as notably associated with historic Belfast Celtic and Derry City ties and with a particular battle royale engaged at an away match against Dundalk in the Irish Republic in August 1979. Belfast Celtic, Derry City and Distillery (in its Belfast incarnation) are all - albeit in different respects - long gone from modern day Irish League football in the North. The exit of Belfast Celtic was directly related to trouble at a December 1948 Windsor Park match and a serious crowd attack on one of their (Protestant) players.
More argy bargy would follow against Glentoran in 1983 and Donegal Celtic in 1990 at The Oval and Windsor respectively - bad blood with Cliftonville has a heritage stretching back to 1913 when the players were welcomed onto the Solitude pitch by the firing of revolvers by some visiting Linfield fans. For many years in the modern period ALL Cliftonville home matches against Linfield were played at Windsor Park for security reasons.
Linfield Football Club's contribution to European football history is threefold. Firstly, in the 1921-22 and 1961-62 seasons, they won the entire raft of seven domestic trophies in Northern Ireland. Then there was a highly successful period in the late Fifties and early Sixties when Newcastle United legend Jackie Milburn joined Linfield as player-manager. Finally there was a match in September 1970 when the same Billy Millen I saw at Windsor Park in the mid-Seventies played the central role in a truly extraordinary Wednesday evening of European cup football in a politically charged and very troubled Belfast City.
(That second seven-trophy winning run by the way - under the captaincy of the ultimate Linfield icon Tommy "The Duke of Windsor" Dickson - was completed at the Solitude ground in North Belfast. I can only imagine the scale and reverberation of the crowd cheers to be heard that night at full time in my own paternal grandparents' road in the Oldpark district a few streets away. This was the very same urban location I mentioned in my Tartan Gang post - at the opposite end of the street from the Solitude-direction on internment day in August 1971 the Catholic and Protestant proletariat were of course firing away with total abandon across the main road at each other.)
Linfield had regularly appeared in European cup competition since the 1959-60 season - a first round appearance in the European Champions Cup against Sweden's Kamraterna (victory in Belfast and defeat in Gothenburg) followed by ties against East Germany's Vorwaerts in 1960-61 (defeat in East Berlin and the opposition denied visas for a return leg) and Esjberg of Denmark in 1961-62 (defeat in Belfast and a draw in Esjberg). In the 1963-64 season they entered the European Cup Winner's Cup and were again knocked out at the first round by Turkey's Fenerbache - defeat in Istanbul and a win in Belfast. Linfield however reached the 1966/67 European Champions Cup Quarter Final. An away draw and a home victory over Luxembourg's Aras and an away victory and a home draw against Norway's Valeregen before being knocked out by Bulgaria's CSKA Sofia - a defeat in the Balkans following a 2-2 draw in Belfast.
Linfield ended the Sixties with three more first round appearances - in the European Fairs Cup in 1967/68 against Leipzig of East Germany (defeat in Leipzig and victory in Belfast), Setubal of Portugal in 1968/69 in the same competition (both defeats) and Red Star Belgrade in the European Champions Cup in 1969/70. The Yugoslavian team - which had its own infamous hooligan following that proceeded to a particularly dark future as paramilitaries in the Nineties civil war in Bosnia - won in Belgrade and Belfast.
For the 1970/71 season part-time Linfield - then managed by Billy Bingham who would later be the Northern Ireland manager at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals - were drawn in the first round against holders Manchester City. A guaranteed healthy pay day for the Belfast club lieing ahead though another early tournament exit being surely foregone. City were of course one of the major top flight English soccer teams of the period with a line-up that included Colin Bell, Tony Book, Mike Doyle, George Best's close friend Mike Summerbee, Neil Young and Francis Lee amongst others. They had won the League in 1968 and the FA Cup in 1969 - indeed my collection of six cool Wembley Soccer Stars figurines in my childhood bedroom consisted of their forward Lee, Bestie, Charlie George of Arsenal, West Ham's Bobby Moore, Martin Chivers of Spurs and Super Leeds' Billy Bremner.
A supremely fit Linfield produced a superb performance in Manchester on Wednesday 16th September under the drive and encouragement of Bingham. Goalkeeper Derek Humphries and sweeper Issac Andrews excelled and only a very late goal from Colin Bell deflated an otherwise incredible team effort. Bingham himself held to the firm belief that Linfield could yet pull off a victory back in Belfast.
The latter half of 1970 had seen a rapid and dismal deterioration in the security situation in Belfast with a significant hike in bombing incidents - including one on the doorstep of the author's family home in July of that year. The countdown to barely contained civil war the following year was starting to gain pace. The 100th explosion of the year in Northern Ireland exploded the day before Linfield played at Maine Road.
In the run up to the return fixture serious disorder had taken place between Linfield fans and the residents of the Catholic Unity Flats at the junction of the Lower Shankill Road with the city centre's North Street on Saturday 26th September. 300 people were injured and many cars and buses were burnt. The day after the fighting continued in the Shankill district between loyalists and the security forces - an Army post was besieged and CS gas was deployed. It would continue into the Monday albeit on a reduced level.
On Wednesday 30th September 1970 Billy Millen moved from midfielder to striker for the game and hit two goals in front of a 25,000 crowd in Linfield's most unforgettable match. He had scored after only four minutes to raise the roof at Windsor Park though Lee equalised shortly afterwards - Millen put Linfield ahead again at the 56th minute but City went through on the away goals rule. City manager Joe Mercer emplacing the epilogue on the tie's drama that "if this is one of the so-called easier draws give me a difficult one every time".
There is little information on the internet about these matches but from what I can gather the Linfield line-up was the same for both matches - Derek Humphries, Alan Fraser, Jackie Patterson, Issac Andrews, Ivan McAllister, Eric Bowyer, Billy Millen, Eric Magee, Bryan Hamilton, the Scot Billy Sinclair and Dessie Cathcart. Hamilton of course later became a well known player for Ipswich Town and Everton and won many international caps before managing Northern Ireland. McAllister was a serving policeman and goalkeeper Humphries - who also joined the force shortly after this historic match- was killed in a car crash the following year on the way from the police college to another European tie in Belfast against Standard Liege. Reports from the matches speak highly of the contributions of McAllister and Fraser alongside Andrews, Humphries and Millen.
A posting on a Glasgow Rangers fan forum made note of an aggressive crowd atmosphere at Maine Road in the first leg. For the return match the kick-off was scheduled early at 6.30 because of the political situation in the city regarding the loyalist disorder on both the Shankill Road and in East Belfast. A few bottles were thrown at City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan at the start of the game but otherwise there was no serious disturbance. Corrigan was conscious of Linfield's status as the "Rangers of Belfast" and recalled the incident in his biography and how manager Bingham had appealed to the crowd to halt the abuse of Corrigan to stop the match being abandoned. He also remembered the size of the crowd and the genuinely electric atmosphere, the military escort back to the airport after the match and how Linfield as an amateur team got nothing like the credit they deserved for the victory.
I also found the match discussed on one thread of a Belfast forum with particular commentary on how a certain senior member of the Manchester City staff executed a tactical volte-face at the prospect of a first round eviction from the lowly competition:
Man. City were very close to being knocked out of that game. Malcolm Allison their coach had been on TV saying a rule should be put in place to stop the passback to the goalkeeeper deliberately wasting time. That night against The Blues I watched him from the touchline yelling at his players to pass the ball back to the keeper. I'm sure he must have been doing it for the last fifteen minutes or more. Billy Millen was tremendous that night. He scored two and ran the Man City defence ragged. Issac Andrews was a close second for man of the match he was certainly first division material that night. Why he wasn't picked up by an English club I'll never know.
The timing and location of the match of course is enshrouded with a genuine strangeness and fatefulness in ways that are not dissimilar to the aforementioned footage of George Best in his power pop glory playing against the USSR. This was some mere weeks after the 1969 civil disorder in Belfast and Derry which lead to the introduction of British troops on Ulster's mean streets. The same can be said for the 1-0 Northern Ireland victory over England at Wembley on 23rd May 1972 - the middle of the worst year of the entire Troubles. On that Tuesday alone a British soldier was shot dead by a sniper, a Catholic civilian died after being injured in an earlier loyalist car bomb attack and four no-warning explosions took place in Belfast injuring seven people and damaging property.
Even though I knew of the significance of this Linfield-Manchester City game for many years I always assumed it had taken place in the late Sixties and not at the start of the Troubles itself. As far as I can remember my maternal grandfather was there to see the victory over City since he mentioned it to me many times. The night - at the eleventh hour of war and peace in Ulster - that Linfield became the Pride of Ireland and the greatest football team in the world.
In light of some seriously hysterical cultural marxist wailing emanating from one particular terrestrial broadcaster's 7pm national news bulletins in the past few months - and that in counterpoise to the deconstruction of fake news agendas by certain transatlantic political playmakers in the same period - I would not hold my breath for any mainstream media reappraisal of the scale of Linfield's incomprehensible achievement at any point soon in documentary or theatrical form. Or indeed the true dynamics underpinning certain political earthquakes of late.
Fortuna Audecas Juvat 1970.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Been watching quite a few dvds in the past few weeks to tide myself over a freezing 21st Century British January - here in the post-Brexit political ghostscape of dumbstruck silence. One of these has been the Leeds United edition of ITV's The Big Match series of the late Sixties, Seventies and Eighties - endlessly entertaining fare.
Leeds of course were re-embedded in public consciousness off the back of the David Peace book on Brian Clough's short tenure as manager in 1974 and the subsequent movie The Damned United. The performances that that iconic squad of international players left behind to British social history of the Seventies are still breathtaking to witness. Between promotion from the old Second Division in the 1963-64 season and being cheated out of a European Cup final win over Bayern Munich in 1975 the team won the League Championship in 1968-69 and 1973-74, the FA Cup in 1972 against Arsenal and the League Cup in 1968 against the same opposition. To this day the Leeds fans hail their team as European Champions at games with reference to the 1975 controversy and their martyrdom at the hands of bogeyman referee Monsieur Michel Kitabdjian.
Extraordinarily enough they were were runners-up in the League in 1964-65 to Manchester United, 1965-66 to Liverpool, 1969-70 to Everton, 1970-71 to Arsenal and 1971-72 to Derby County. Also FA Cup runners-up in 1965, 1970 and 1973 to Liverpool, Chelsea and Sunderland. In Europe they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (precursor of the UEFA Cup) in 1968 against Hungary's Ferencvaros and then Juventus in 1971 - they were also were runners-up in the competition in 1967 against Yugoslavia's Dinamo Zagreb and likewise runners-up in the 1973 European Cup Winner's Cup to AC Milan. Players of such calibre and metal as Eire's Johnny Giles, England's Terry Cooper and Paul Madeley and Scotland's Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer insure that the legend of Don Revie and Super Leeds will run and run.
One of the best matches on the collection was a 1973 away game at Stamford Bridge in London against the equally renowned Chelsea squad of the time - John Hollins, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood, Ron Harris, Peter Bonnetti, Alan Hudson et al. Leeds won 2-1. That most famous of all Chelsea squads is also interesting in terms of a particularly thought-provoking piece of counterfactual football history. This alike the possibility of Best, Law and Charlton having been joined in the Manchester United front line by a retained Johnny Giles and Celtic's Jimmy Johnstone and as with regard to the possibility that a troubled Belfast Boy could have ended up here in what could and should have been the literal middle-point of his career.
Following the early Sixties decision of East Belfast's Glentoran to let the apparently questionable talents of a teenage George Best go by the board- as did scouts from Wolverhampton Wanderers who Best actually supported as a boy and Manchester City - his ten year stint at United was followed by a light flight of golden top end appearances with the Johannesburg Jewish Guild, Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian of Edinburgh, San Jose Earthquakes, Sea Bee (of Hong Kong), Hong Kong Rangers, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Osborne Park Galeb in Australia, Warwickshire's Nuneaton Borough and finally Tobermore United who are based to the north of Magherafelt in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Yes,that wee town on the road from Desertmartin to Maghera.
However, despite the general car crash nature of Best's career following the 1968 European Cup final and the decline of the aging United squad, several teams were yet interested in him according to an historical haul through the rich Best bibliography on the shelves - of which the most impressive by a long way remains Duncan Hamilton's 2013 Immortal. These included Real Madrid and Juventus at the beginning of the Seventies, Chelsea and Manchester City and also Brian Clough's Derby County in the fall-out from the 1973 sacking of Best and manager Frank O'Farrell, a particularly keen New York Cosmos at the very launch of the North American Soccer League in clear preference to even Pele as the lodestar of the revolution, Real Madrid again in the period when Tommy Docherty came to manage United, Birmingham's Aston Villa in the same time frame and several Italian and Spanish clubs following his performance for Northern Ireland in the 1976 World Cup qualifier against Holland in Rotterdam.
The possibility of a move to Chelsea in particular is truly fascinating in light of the panache of their team performances, general individual flair and timely location in Western cultural history on the King's Road which was exemplified by the visit of the regal Raquel Welch to Stamford Bridge for a 1972 home game against Leicester City. Welch yelled enthusiastically to striker Peter Osgood from the touchlines during the match - he later recalling "She probably figured as I was standing there on the pitch doing nothing it was okay to interrupt. If I had been George Best I would have slipped her my number but then again if I was George Best she would have slipped me hers". Welch was photographed previously by Terry O'Neill wearing a Chelsea strip on the set of her western movie Hannie Caulder - the team was also watched by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in this period. Chelsea won the League Cup in 1965, the FA Cup in 1970 and the UEFA Cup in 1971.
Hamilton's biography notes the especial frisson that playing against Chelsea in London gave to Best:
It is said that man responds to those landscapes in which he instinctively feels he belongs. Best had never played at Stamford Bridge before; but he knew he belonged there. The architecture was unimpressive. There was rickedly-looking double-decker seating on stilts beside the modest main stand, its footballers weather-vane twisting atop a white-fronted pediment. There were wide, open spaces behind each uncovered goal and 20-floor high-rises could be seen in the middle and far distance. But something indefinable in regard to the ambience of the ground and the atmosphere inside it never failed to in inspire Best. He was roused whenever he went to Chelsea, which became one of his spiritual homes.
In the eleven seasons that George Best played for Manchester United he took part in 17 matches against that classic Chelsea squad of the Sixties and Seventies - four victories, six draws and seven defeats for United in a batch of 16 First Division ties and one League Cup match.
1963-64: 23rd March 1964 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
1964-65: 30th September 1964 - Manchester United's 2-0 away victory at Stamford Bridge which would be the game to bring Best firmly to public attention across Britain. Best himself always saw it as the day the trajectory of his career left an earthly gravity - 21 players and the stadium having applauded him off the pitch at the end. He scored in this game as did Dennis Law. In the return League fixture on 13th March 1965 in Manchester Best scored again in a 4-0 victory - another
oft- transmitted piece of footballing genius with Best outwitting Eddie McCreadie on the top left wing before looping the ball over Bonnetti from a ludicrous angle. United went on to win the Championship in this season.
1965-66: 12th March 1966 - Three days after Manchester United's famous 5-1 victory against Benfica in the European Cup Quarter-Final Chelsea defeated them 2-0 in West London - the home fans applauding the significance of the Lisbon victory enthusiastically before kick-off.
1966-67: 15th October 1966 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford the week before Best played in Northern Ireland's 2-0 defeat by England in Belfast in the European Championship Qualifier. The Jules Rimet Trophy being paraded before the Windsor Park crowd - including my father and grandfather - beforehand. Manchester United won the League Championship in this season again.
1967-68: 25th November 1967 - 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge with Best carrying an injury. The
2nd March 1968 return at Old Trafford saw an on-form Best miss a penalty in a 3-1 defeat for the home team. Chelsea's Ron Harris succeeded in both matches in fundamentally limiting George Best's scope. A borderline apocryphal story of the time relates how a fashion photographer was assigned to take action shots of Best against Chelsea to juxtapose with trendy clothing shots already obtained - the photographer subsequently observing how a ubiquitous blue-shirted, square-jawed and mean-faced hard man seemed to be in every solitary captured image.
1968-69: 24th August 1968 - 4-0 defeat for the European Champions at Old Trafford with Harris reassuming his defensive watch. The 15th March 1969 return at Stamford Bridge saw Best out-perform Harris though relegation-threatened United again lost 3-2.
1969-70: 6th December 1969 - Manchester United defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford with Harris again neutralising Best on the wings. Chelsea also won the 21st March 1970 return at Stamford Bridge - Ian Hutchinson scoring twice in Manchester and the same again in London. The season would end with Chelsea's first FA Cup final victory over Revie's Leeds.
1970-71: 19th August 1970 - A scoreless draw at Old Trafford in the League. Best also played in a League Cup 4th Round game against Chelsea on 28th October 1970 - this was the game where Best outwitted a hammering Harris challenge in the Manchester downpour to score one of his most famous ever goals in a 2-1 victory. The Stamford Bridge return tie in 1971 in the League saw Best suspended for missing training and spending the weekend in an Islington flat with actress Sinead Cusack - United won 2-1 without him.
1971-72: 18th August 1971 - Best was sent off for arguing with the referee following Chelsea's opening goal - the press photograph of his exit from the pitch beside a placating Bobby Charlton and Tony Dunne has been reproduced many times. United however won the game in London 3-2. The 22nd January 1972 return at Old Trafford saw Chelsea's Osgood score the only goal of the match.
1972-73: 30th August 1972 - Another scoreless draw in Manchester. Best did not play in the Manchester United team between 25th November 1972 and 20th October April 1973.
1973-74: 3rd November 1973 - 2-2 draw in Manchester during what would be Best's final 12-game bow for United under Tommy Doherty.
As an appendum to the above, on 27th December 1976 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea defeated Fulham 2-0 in the Second Division tie. Fulham's team included Best and Bobby Moore. The two players were also in the Fulham squad on 8th April 1977 at Craven Cottage where the home team won 3-1 - Best scored one of the goals.
As discussed in an earlier post on George Best and Northern Ireland, his footballing career ran in parallel to the worst years of the civil war in Ulster. The 18th August 1971 and 22nd January 1972 ties mentioned above came only nine days after the introduction of internment and one week before Bloody Sunday respectively - these being the two events which pushed months of sustained radical civil disorder into a full-blown guerrilla insurgency with an accompanying sectarian carnage that shamed the name of Ireland across the world for many years.
Both Duncan Hamilton's defining work on the footballer - and indeed many other studies of his extraordinary lifepath - reference how Best's deep-seated love for United may well have been the core reason for the radical downfall of his career in the mid-Seventies. This of course standing alongside the sobering fate of being lodged deep within a mediocre Northern Ireland international squad that was linearly placed between highly successful and passion-driven World Cup final appearances in the Fifties and Eighties.
An elongation of George Best's British football career at this point may well indeed have seen him alive today - let alone within the context of the commercial multi-billion pound invigoration of the sport he alone single-handedly revolutionised alike Belfast's Alex Higgins with the game of snooker.
Granted George Best at Chelsea may not be as tangible a sporting counterfactual as the prospect of the star in his glorious prime at the Mexico World Cup of 1970 - where Northern Ireland would have been arraigned against first round opponents of Belgium, the host country and mighty El Salvador had they topped the qualifying group above the USSR. Nonetheless the thought of a blue-clad mid-Seventies Best at Chelsea remains fascinating - looming there between the overweight and heavily bearded player working through his demons for a brace of lose-lose matches under Tommy Docherty in 1973 and 1974 and the night that the Gods of Dutch Total Football fought for his shirt at the end of the 1977 Northern Ireland match in Rotterdam ... a 2-2 draw and the 33rd of only 37 international appearances.
Privately, George Best was of course a long term resident of the King's Road for many years. However the thought of Belfast BT6's finest son playing with a top flight Chelsea team in the mid-Seventies for a half-decade or so remains such an incredible piece of historical reflection. It certainly would have made the utterly degrading - and perhaps unparalleled collapse - of London as a great city even more harrowing to consider today.