Thursday, June 28, 2012

Packing Up The Troubles


The Second World War ended with the surrender of the Empire of Japan in Tokyo Bay on September 2nd 1945. The ceremony on board the USS Missouri concluded with the stentorian words of General Douglas MacArthur:

Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always - these proceedings are closed.

Yesterday's cordial meeting in Belfast between Queen Elizabeth and a former IRA Chief of Staff thus brings a similarly conclusive end to the lengthy and convoluted peace process stretching back through the St Andrews and Good Friday Agreements and to the 1994 Republican and Loyalist ceasefires. If the entire framework of gradual demilitarisation, devolution and decommisioning be literally sourced to the Enniskillen bombing of 1987 it has therefore lasted my entire working life almost to the month.

During that same period of time the face of the United Kingdom in general has changed beyond recognition - both culturally and politically - and by way of fateful geopolitical military engagement, historic demographic shifts, banking criminality of unprecedented scope, the loss of much individual life security for the average British citizen, the death of any public respect for our political system and monumental changes affecting working life off the back of globalisation and technological creep alike. And even the end of Glasgow Rangers.

The Queen's visit to Northern Ireland over the past two days - in tandem with last year's visit to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin for the fallen volunteers of the War of Independence from the British Empire - has thus without question ensured that the Ulster Troubles can now finally return to the darker shadows of Irish history from where they should never have emerged in the first place in the mid to late Sixties.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Alan McDonald - Queens Park Rangers and Northern Ireland




Enshrined forever in the history of Northern Irish international football was Alan McDonald’s legendary television interview following the World Cup qualifier against England on 13th November 1985. After the game – which ended scoreless and guaranteed Northern Ireland a place at the Mexico 1986 finals – McDonald passed comment on the feelings of a segment of the England support that their own team hadn’t really been trying.

"There were 13 heroes out there…everyone was brilliant …and anyone who said that’s a fix can come and see me and I’ll tell them it wasn’t a fix ...so we bloody earned that ...and anybody says different is a joke."

On being further questioned whether he had enjoyed the historic night itself at Wembley despite just having asked it outside en masse for a fight, McDonald replied with the equally legendary and monosyllabic  “No” before underscoring his part in nearly allowing Gary Lineker to score. He then went on to praise the players for getting behind him in turn, the fact that the team deserved to get to the World Cup and how the biggest ambition of his life was to play in front of the crowd at Windsor Park Belfast.

Alan McDonald of Queens Park Rangers and Northern Ireland died suddenly at the weekend at the age of only 48 – the tributes across the internet to him today are both fulsome and empassioned about the loss of the man and the player alike. One public tribute today noted how during the tense and now infamous  Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland qualifier for the USA World Cup in November  1993 at Windsor Park that McDonald was amongst the first players to congratulate the opposition on their qualification following the 1-1 draw.

That 1985 interview was less than two minutes long but will forever stand as an embodiment of total professional commitment -  from a player appearing in only the second of his fifty two international appearances - and burning individual pride for one’s country during a period of two decades when both parts of Ireland played to incredulous levels of footballing excellence above their global standing.

Northern Ireland’s six year long international football light flight under Billy Bingham would not last long beyond those very Mexico finals in which McDonald played in all three games but those words at Wembley Stadium will never be forgotten from yet another citizen of Belfast who during our troubled times showed the world a face of utter decency, talent and raw character.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Just Passing


This feeling of spring like the wing of a bird that is flying
The nights they grow cold as my mind does grow old
And I'm looked at, inspected, hated, accepted.


Just Passing was a short psychedelic song by The Small Faces which appeared on the b-side of their 1967 single I Can't Make It which reached number 26 in the charts. Like many other flipsides of their singles - from the Grow Your Own and Almost Grown mod instrumentals in 1966 through to I'm Only Dreaming, Rollin' Over and Donkey Rides A Penny A Glass at decade's end - the quality of their musical output throughout their short career emplaces them forever as one of the five great British bands of the Sixties.

The beautiful acoustic song lasts a mere one minute and sixteen seconds and its ethereal nature is accentuated by lyrics suggestive of spiritual catharsis and by background sound effects of a bicycle horn and a keyboard replicating a children's music box loop. It is a very light yet haunting piece and reflective of times, places and of course people long vanished.

In our modern lives - frameworked by stress, uncertainty and clearcut lack of community and communication alike - it is obvious that accelerated lifestyle imbalances and the sheer pace of life are fundamentally failing to keep pace with any substantial sense of rationale or purpose.

In modern British history it would be Elvis' fleeting March 1960 visit to Prestwick Airport in Scotland - as discussed in an earlier post - that most instils to me the notion of how even short lived interfaces of time and consequence can still leave lasting and often moving imprints of significance, fondness and meaning.

Two other interesting and rarely referenced moments of similar note during the late Sixties and early Seventies took place in London and Belfast.

On Wednesday 4th September 1968 the truly magnificent Jefferson Airplane from San Francisco would play a short concert in the highly unlikely surroundings of the corrugated iron bandstand at a rainy Parliament Hill Fields in North London's Hampstead Heath as part of the Camden Festival. The support was English folk rock group Fairport Convention and took place between performances at the Isle of Wight Festival and that alongside The Doors at Camden Town's Roundhouse.

Internet-sourced memories of the free concert - little publicised by Camden Council itself although advertised in The International Times and John Peel's Top Gear radio show - include Grace Slick asking the small  audience of a few hundred "What is wrong with you people, it's raining, go home" and Paul Kantner assuring everybody that in the same weather conditions in California nobody would have turned up at all.

The setlist included the famous singles Somebody To Love and White Rabbit (the latter as an encore), Saturday Afternoon as to be later performed at the Woodstock Festival and one of the most the beautiful songs of the entire era in Marty Balin and Paul Kantner's Today. The time of the set was limited by council regulations although at the end guitarist Jack Casaday shook a tambourine in breach of the same and to the approval of the crowd.

On Wednesday 8th September 1971 wartorn Belfast was to be visited by Indian Swami Vishnudevanada - accompanied by legendary actor Peter Sellers whose childhood home in Muswell Hill was indeed not far from Hampstead Heath - as the first of a series of peace flights over the world's trouble spots to underscore the essentially internal constructs of barriers between people and countries and to promote inner harmony through yoga discipline. Later flights - as armed with flowers and peace flyers - would include those to the Suez Canal, the Berlin Wall and Palestine.

In Belfast - a city wracked with violence, murder and population flight following the introduction of internment without trial in August - the legendary "Flying Swami" took part in a "Headstands for Peace" sit-in and a walkabout through the city streets chanting a song entitled "Love They Neighbour As Thyself". The Swami visited the Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the Shankill Road, the family home of a Catholic teenager recently shot dead by the army and also unsuccessfully attempted to see the Reverend Ian Paisley.

The final Troubles death toll in Northern Ireland for 1971 would be 174 fatalities - in 1972 that would number a yearly peak of 467.

So many decades on from the above and British life seems now enmeshed in what one good friend regards as nothing more than a literal daily struggle for survival amidst social and cultural breakdown on a level that has directly engendered a form of peacetime shellshock amongst so many citizens of this country.

Likewise the festering and soulless greed around us today, where even vile and violent lifestyle interfaces close to the Parliament Hill Fields site today contain hyperinflated property prices so ludicrous as to be beyond human reason, clearly showing that - alike love and brotherhood itself - the things that truly matter in the realms of memory are so often the very life experiences upon which no price can ever be placed.

That indeed is the lesson of our sad lost times.

The wise men they wrangle - their minds look for angles and meaning
But the ceiling is white as I glide through the night
As I'm leaving, living, being.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Patriot Brothers


Some very moving touches to be seen at last week's funeral of Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb in Oxfordshire, as harking back to the oldest and saddest of all of the lost cultural connections across the British Isles, with the service incorporating both Jerusalem and the beautiful old Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision - Gibb's coffin draped in the flag of the Isle of Man.

The consolidation of the ethnic frontier in the North East of Ireland on structural and institutional grounds in 1921 would also incorporate the division of the sport of football itself - though not that of rugby union or cricket. This week's disappointing results for the Irish Republic at the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine - and indeed ongoing controversy about young Northern Irish-born players from nationalist backgrounds opting to play for the South - yet again underscoring one of the most ironic dichotomies in the history of the game.

In terms of appearances at World Cup finals the English team has now done so on thirteen occasions, the Scottish eight and the Welsh once. The Northern Ireland team played at the 1958 finals in Sweden, 1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico - the Republic of Ireland in 1990 in Italy, 1994 in the USA and 2002 in South Korea. Northern Ireland were quarter-finalists in 1958 - the geographically smallest country to date to achieve such a feat - and the Republic in 1990. The Republic of Ireland also played in the 1988 European Championship finals in Germany. Hence if gauged to European populations alone - alike Uruguay for example in the South American context - both teams have had very successful footballing histories.

So alongside the unbeaten performances of the Scottish side in 1974 in West Germany - where the squad was then so strong that neither Dennis Law nor Jimmy Johnstone were played in any of the three games - the sequencing of World Cup success from the respective parts of Ireland from the Fifties onwards is a matter of significant historical note in European football. This as against the further qualifications that the Northern Ireland squad between the successes of the Fifties and Eighties included George Best - and indeed one of the world's then greatest goalkeepers in Pat Jennings - and that the fallow years for the Republic in the Seventies nevertheless saw their squad incorporate talent of the calibre of Leeds United's Johnny Giles, Liverpool's Steve Heighway and Arsenal's Liam Brady.

Alike the political decisions that undermined any chance of integrated education taking root in the new Northern Ireland state within the violent turmoil of the early Twenties, there was no significant party that realistically had the monopoly for either instigating the initial organisational division or copperfastening it in turn.

The Football Association of Ireland initially broke away from the Belfast-based Irish Football Association in 1921 because of a dispute over the venue for an Irish Cup Final between Glentoran of East Belfast and Dublin's Shelbourne and alongside alleged neglect of the game in the South. The IFA countered by stressing how the game was mainly played in the North. Both associations thereafter claimed to represent football across the entire island and fielded national teams under the name of "Ireland" - several players even ended up playing for both international brands. Only interventions by FIFA in the early Fifties clarified the status of each Irish team as being seperately the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The division would nevertheless be a fundamental and fateful factor in limiting Irish football success by way of clearcut population limitations and of course the fact that no national football team has an international cross- border makeup as such - Eire having left the British Commonwealth in 1949.

As discussed in an earlier post, the two main football figures from Northern Ireland who were fervent in their belief in the sporting and social benefits of a united Ireland team were Derek Dougan and George Best.

On 3rd July 1973 - and as against opposition from the Irish Football Association and the reservations of the Football Association of Ireland - Dougan and Johnny Giles organised an all-Ireland team under the aegis of "Shamrock Rovers" to play Brazil during their nine-match summer tour of Europe. In a period of extraordinary violence in Ulster it could be seen as a significant act of solidarity between the two parts of Ireland. Only a Brazilian flag was displayed during the match and the Brazilian anthem solely played beforehand.

The team included Northern Ireland's Allan Hunter, Bryan Hamilton, Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings and the Republic's Don Givens, Terry Conroy, Paddy Mulligan and Mick Martin. Brazil - whose team included the legendary Jairzinho and Rivelino - won the match 4-3.

Consideration of what a solitary Irish national football team representing the whole island could have achieved is extremely thought provoking. That both by way of sporting achievement, which could surely have replicated that of Scotland, and as a unifying factor for the people of the partitioned island - in war and peace.

Although the full scale of barely contained civil war in Ulster between 1971 and 1976 may well have had devastating effects on such a team's ability to function in security, the fact remains that in the fractured run up to the dark core of the Troubles between the Divis Street riots of 1964 in Belfast and the acceleration of Provisional IRA bombing attacks in the second half of 1970, that the Northern Ireland team themselves with George Best came close to qualifying for both the 1966 World Cup finals in England and those in Mexico in 1970.

Footage of the famous Windsor Park international of Northern Ireland against Scotland in 1967 has fans of the home team clearly shouting for "Ireland" while a poster inside the Sinn Fein election office on the Falls Road three years earlier - where the placement of an Irish tricolour became the catalyst for the worst street rioting since 1935 - still noted the inclusive words of John Frazier and Sean Tyrrell:

And though it be in our country's cause
Our party feelings blended
'Til lasting peace from equal laws
On both will have descended
'Til then the orange lily be
Your badge, my patriot brother
It's the everlasting green for me
And we for one another

Yesterday's liquidation of Glasgow Rangers football club in turn providing a sobering epilogue to the long narrative of Scottish football - as analysed in detail in Archie Macpherson's magnificent Flower of Scotland history - from the days when brilliant players from the north of the border grew on the proverbial trees and right through to 2000/2001 when Rangers and Celtic first fielded teams with 11 non-Scottish players on their sides.

Hence the December 2005 Belfast funeral of George Best was memorable for more than its unforgettable and dramatic place in European social history - the draping of the flag of the Northern Ireland Football Association across his coffin in some way emblematic of the fading sources of indigenous sporting talent emanating from these islands as a whole.

And equally so it was perhaps reflective of the lost golden chance that all the people of a politically divided island had to unite around the one thing that could have made us all - even for a solitary day - the best in Europe and, just perhaps, the world.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

1977 And All That

Seriously inclement conditions here in London at the moment during the Jubilee celebrations and following upon a prolonged period of scorching hot weather that has left my forehead - in the midst of a long term hair redistribution project - as scalded as Jamsie Cotter's tits during his trip from Govan to the Spanish Costas with Rab C Nesbitt.

To round off a previous thread on Scottish football in turn, I read a lovely tribute on the BBC website for condolences upon the death of Slim Jim Baxter of Glasgow Rangers in 2001. Mr Alan Frew in Canada recalled:

When I was a small boy I followed Rangers weekly. One Saturday at Broomfield the park was dangerously swelling to an overfull capacity. For safety boys and girls were allowed out of the crush to sit on the track surrounding the field of play. At one point Slim Jim came beside me to take a  throw in when the ref stopped the play for a few minutes. He then started chatting with me, what was my name, what school did I go to etc.When the ref blew the whistle to restart play he said: "Right son, see ye later" and off he went. A never forgotten cherished memory of Jim Baxter.

Also have read in the past week some reflections and memories of the tragic night in September 1985 at Ninian Park in Cardiff when Scotland manager Jock Stein died at the end of a World Cup qualifier. There was much tension and angst in the Scottish dressing room at half time due to the realisation that goalkeeper Jim Leighton not only wore contact lenses but was also having some serious problems with his vision. He was replaced by Alan Rough who made his way out for the historic second half to the motivating words "Good luck, ya fat bastard" from Stein himself.

Stein had personally helped the injured during the Ibrox disaster of January 1971 which lead to 66 fatalities and noted thereafter "This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches. When human life is at stake this kind of hatred seems sordid and little. Fans of both sides will never forget this disaster."

Days of such footballing glory for Scotland, as fixed around legendary figures of the ilk of Baxter, Stein, Dennis Law,  Jimmy Johnstone and Kenny Dalglish (and with consecutive appearances at the 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups) may now be consigned to the realms of history though since the last Royal Jubilee the political dynamics toward national independence have certainly not retarded in any way.

All and everything so fundamentally changed then since the year of Elvis' death, Donna Summers' I Feel Love and Wings' Mull of Kintyre. Indeed even the very physical geography of urban British landscapes have altered dramatically in the same period against crushing deindustrialisation, commercial uniformity and demographic change. This in a country where reflections upon the genuinely glorious past of independence, heroism and national uniqueness now weigh heavily for so many of us against the dread of  future socio-economic projections and ludicrous political inertia.

1952 was such a long time ago yet 1977 somehow seems just as far away today.