Saturday, 13 July 2019

Time Travelling #3 (2019-1985)

I stand in the year 2019 and scream as loud as I can into the black eternal void of time;

1985! Can You Hear Me?!!

There’s no reply. I need a reply.

1985!!! Can You Hear Me?!!

No reply.

I need the keys to access the time portals from the moments of that year. The year in which I began it aged twenty and finished it aged twenty-one. But first, to access 1985 I need to do the groundwork, or set the scene by first going back to 1980, when I was in my mid-teens. It was a time of angst, of an unwillingness to grow up. I had no say in the matter. It was going to happen. I was going to grow older whether I liked it or not.

By 1980 I had come through the short but hugely impactful punk-rock era that began for me in 1977, and lasted until the end of the decade. As a mid-teenager, the rebel in me was now truly ignited. I left Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School on Friday, 23rd May, 1980, aged 15, with not a single qualification to my name. I actually departed school before I was due to sit my exams. I didn’t care. The school didn’t care. My parents didn’t care. That was fine. Nobody cared. This was not unusual in the working-class community I grew up in. Education for many was way down the list of priorities. You would get a job working with your hands and common-sense - a trade of some sort. My dad had a word with his mate, who had a friend, who owned a small electrical-installation company. I got started as an apprentice-electrician. Who needed exams?

1980 through to 1985 was a remarkable period of freedom, joy, self-discovery, creating music and heartbreak, all going on at the same time. This was life happening at speed. Each day was packed with some sort of drama. By day I was working as an apprentice Electrician and trying to fit in with the alpha-male environment, and by night I was the artist, fuelled by alcohol and the spirit of creativity. Music was my fire. Jane, my girlfriend, was my love. My mates were both my sanity and the facilitators of my insanity. I went wild with them, mad with them, shared delight with them. I’d have been lost without them.

During the period of the early eighties, the relationship with my parents had all but fizzled out. They got drunk every day and so did I. My family home had turned into nothing more than a lodging. It was somewhere to sleep. The pressure was off my parents. No more did they have to look after me. They were free to go out as much as they wanted to the local pubs and clubs. That suited me, as I had the house to myself most of the time. Although with that, came a feeling of emptiness - in a house of where love had broken down.

From 1981to 1983 I played guitar in a little band known as ‘Insight’. I wrote songs with them and we played live around any of the Belfast venues there were to play at. This was during the troubles in which Belfast’s city centre was a ghost-town at night. There weren’t many places for up and coming bands to play at. We played at ’Winkers’ and ‘Jules’. These were the small night-clubs for the new-wave/alternative hipsters. The Orpheus bar on York Street. The Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road. The Glen Inn in Glengormely. We’d play anywhere that would let a band who mainly played their own songs, play.

My world was music, my mates and Jane.

I first met Jane in 1978, when I was fourteen and she was thirteen. It was love. No doubt about it. She became my world. We’d spend as much time as we could with each other. This was it. She was the one for me. We both had a love of music and the majority of our evenings were spent listening to music together. I was blissfully happy - until one night in September, 1982. It was a moment when I had my heart shattered into a billion pieces. Jane told me over her garden gate on a cold autumnal Ulster evening, “It’s over. I don’t want to get into a rut.”. I walked home in a daze and in disbelief. In retrospect, she was right, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was my world had fallen apart. For the next few years I withdrew into myself. I became almost a recluse. The outside world had hurt me big this time. No more relationships for me ever again I had decided. All I had left was music.

The world would hurt me even more in 1983 when my beloved little music band, ‘Insight’ finished. That band was the outlet for my heart and soul, and now it was taken away in one winter’s evening. Jane gone. Music gone. The only solution to this was alcohol. And that’s what I indulged in, to the maximum. Seven days a week I held hands with the Devil, as I disappeared down a deep worm-hole of alcohol, melancholy and despair.

The Police - Synchronicity
XTC - Mummer
The summer of 1983 was glorious weather and while Belfast bathed in sunshine, I sank into days and nights alone, with music and alcohol as my company.

The Police’s album ‘Synchronicity’, released in June 1983 and XTC’s album ‘Mummer’ from August ’83 were my indulgence, and they captured exactly how I was feeling.

Lotus Eaters -The First Picture Of You
A single by The Lotus Eaters titled ‘The First Picture of You’ was released in July 1983 and it sang to my very soul. It was the most perfectly-timed song to arrive into my world.

The first picture of you, the first picture of summer. See the flowers scream their joy.

It was three and a half minutes of musical perfection. Summer shone through that little song. It, along with Sting singing “There's a little black spot on the sun today, that's my soul up there…” from The Police’s ‘King Of Pain’ and Andy Partridge singing “High climbs the summer sun…” from XTC’s ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’. This music was my summer of 1983 soundtrack, Southern Comfort and beer was my fuel.

I eventually began to enter back into the world, thanks to the encouragement of my friends. It was time to make up for the days I lost sitting alone in my house.
These were to be the days and nights of partying, drinking, writing and playing music, and trying unsuccessfully to form music-bands. I wallowed and staggered my way through the pubs and social-clubs of East Belfast. I never found happiness, just a nihilistic drunken haze. Saturday nights were spent at Malone Rugby Club disco, drinking pints from plastic glasses, watching fights break out on the other side of the room between the different areas of East Belfast who hated each other. I kept well out of it. Fighting wasn’t my scene. I was five foot seven inches tall and had a slender frame - although by now a ‘beer-belly’ was starting to develop. Drinking alcohol every day takes its toll. “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I’m miserable now…”. Thank you, Steven Patrick Morrissey. When you cycled by, there began all my dreams…

1983 and ’84 passed in a drunken whirlwind. Every day was repetition.

It is now time to do some Magic.

Let’s step back in time to help this totally-lost-boy out. I’m choosing to intervene in his life during the year 1985, when by now things were at the pathetically helpless stage. This boy needs to see that continually wallowing in self-indulgence and heartbreak is not the way to go.

Let’s do this…

Prefab Sprout 'Steve McQueen
The band Prefab Sprout released an album in June 1985 titled ‘Steve McQueen’. It was to light up my world for a few months until I eventually played it to death. “When love breaks down, the things you do, to stop the truth from hurting you…” sang Paddy McAloon, like a comforter to my soul. Some songs seem to burrow deep inside your soul. This was one of them. It was three years on and I was still not over the break-up with Jane. A diary entry from July 15th, 1985 reads; 

Three years on and I’m still thinking about Jane. I still love her. I’ve got to see her again. I must. OK???!!!”

It’s through this diary-entry that I go back to visit my twenty year-old miserable, confused self sitting on the floor of a nicotine-stained living room in Ravenhill Avenue, listening to Prefab Sprout’s ‘Steve McQueen’ (amongst many other albums and songs) repeatedly, trying to find answers to the inner turmoil I was experiencing. I tell him;

“Do you realise in five years time, in the year 1990, you will get Jane back? In fact, you’ll get married and have children with her! Weirder still, this will happen when you’ll be living in London (yes, you’re going to move there in 1987!), and she’ll be living in Dublin — but somehow fate will eventually bring you both back to Belfast to be together again. Life is wonderfully strange isn’t it?!”

“Can this really happen?” I ask this wise old soul from thirty-four years in the future, who comes to me from the year 2019. 

“It’s all true. I promise. Many things could have happened, but this is how it actually did turn out. Your future will prove your past. All will be good” I tell the confused twenty year old.

Back to the mundane world…

In 1985 I completed a five-year electrical apprenticeship and achieved my one and only qualification - a City & Guilds 236/1 certificate in Electrical Installation. I was made redundant on the last day of my apprenticeship, 20th August, which also happened to be my 21st birthday. I was told by the company foreman that I was, “as from midnight tonight, no longer employed by H.Kelly & Co.” He walked off. That was it. One sentence. No handshake. No well-wishes for the future. No Thank you. Five years work, finished. I signed on the dole and received £31 per week. My ma’ took £30 off me for lodgings. Happy days.

I was desperately looking for work, but when you have no exams to your name, it can be a difficult process. I managed to find work as a street sweeper. I lasted three weeks and gave it up. Not my thing at all. I eventually found work as an electrician again. This was a scary world, for no longer was I the apprentice. I was now a tradesman who had to solve any on-the-job-problems by myself. I couldn’t ask my journeyman what to do any more. It was soon obvious to me that construction-work was no place for this little sensitive soul.

Music was the thing that kept me sane and wanting to stay alive. I have many albums of the year 1985 to give thanks for…

Songs From The Big Chair’ by Tears For Fears was released 25th February 1985.
Shout! Shout! Let it all out!” sang Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith.
- Talk to me brothers.

Suzanne Vega’s eponymous debut album released May 1985 sang deeply to my souL.
“You stand with your hand in your pocket, and lean against the wall. You will be Bogart, and I will be Bacall.
That could’ve been me with Jane…

Prince: Around The World in a Day
In April, 1985 an album was released that was to shake my world and sum up the strangeness of my own inner self that was happening right at that time. ‘Around The World In A Day’ by Prince, was a thing of weird, psychedelic beauty. It was the follow-up to his massively successful ‘Purple Rain’ album. Around The World In A Day sounded completely different to its predecessor. This was minimalist colourful brush-strokes of music that illuminated our empty soulless, nicotine-stained living-room. When I listened to that album, I would be transported to a beautiful ‘Paisley Park’ where nothing but love, beauty and art mattered. This was Prince’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

Using the time-portal-key of ‘Around The World In A Day’ I can go back to my twenty-year old self and tell him that although Prince Rogers Nelson would unbelievably depart this Earth on 21st April, 2016, this particular album would still resonate within me, way down the line in 2019. I am listening to this album as I write this. I’m now on track #3, ‘Condition Of The Heart’. “There was a girl whom he sent a letter to. She never answered back and now He's got a condition of the heart…”

Prince die at 57?!! That’s not in the script”, my twenty year-old self answered.

From the year 2019 I tell him, “It is in the script. Life is a strange thing, son. In fact, it’s beyond comprehension. You’re going to discover just how weird this rabbit-hole actually is. Hold tight. Buckle up. Wheels up. Here we go, into the world we think we know - it’s called “reality”.”

1985 was the year I decided that I needed to own a copy of all albums from 1965-1969 by The Beatles. I’d been born and raised on them, thanks to my older brother, but he got married many years ago taking his albums with him. I felt naked and ashamed that I didn’t own these masterpiece albums by The Beatles. Revisiting Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road brought home the sum-total of their genius. They spoke to my soul and reaffirmed that this band actually were as good as the myth surrounding them.

1985 Irish Cup Final Match Programme
Being brought up as a Belfast-boy, it was impossible not to have been engrossed by football. As small kids we played the game constantly in the streets. I went to Glentoran games with my father since I was old enough to remember. I watched Match of The Day, The Big Match on TV. It was a passion that was not so much a natural one, rather I was indoctrinated into it from a small age. It was a local cultural thing. Football for many was life. By 1985 my love of the game was still there, although it was on the wane and eventually would be replaced by the world of music. Although, setting aside all grandiose artistic traits and thoughts, it is still to this day, a joy to hear of Glentoran beating their fierce rivals, Linfield. That will never change.
The 11th May 1985 at Windsor Park, Belfast, was one of those days of joy, when Glentoran defeated Linfield 1-0 in the Irish Cup Final. The win came from an own-goal from the blues’ right-back Paul Mooney. What a glorious sight that was to see!

“At Windsor Park I love to go to see the Blues go down, for I support Glentoran from the other side of town”, sang James Young in his song, ‘The Glentoran Supporter’.

Irish League football however, was full of aggression. Anyone who attended Glentoran versus Linfield games during the 1970s and 80s will know all about the seething hatred and needless violence that happened when those two teams met. I wanted away from that, and into a world where the quest wasn’t to beat Linfield, but to find Love at its highest, philosophical level. Winning the Irish League title or the Irish Cup trophy pales into insignificance when we’re dealing with enlightenment.

Away from football and back to music…

On Saturday 13 July 1985, my mates and I along with millions across the globe witnessed the famous Live Aid concert. In the Parkview Bar, we watched Status Quo open this epic event, then after a few pints and a few more bands we headed back to my mate Masy’s house and patiently watched the rest. We were all waiting patiently for the appearance of Led Zeppelin, who were to play live for the first time in five years. Watching Live Aid as it happened, we all knew we were witnessing a part of music-history. A nice moment to share.

Kate Bush - Hounds of Love
This musical tale was about to change. On 16th September 1985, Kate Bush released an album titled ‘Hounds Of Love’. It was the very first album I ever heard on CD. My musical ears and mind were blown apart in the most beautiful way. The clarity of sound compared to the vinyl and cassette format we had all been listening to, was beyond compare. In Hounds Of Love I had suddenly found my favourite album of all time. This gorgeous piece of work taught me what music production was about. From the opening line, “It doesn't hurt me - do you want to feel how it feels?” To the last line of the album “I'll tell my father, I’ll tell my loved one, I’ll tell my brothers, how much I love them” - this was a perfect album. Perfect for the autumn it was released in, and perfect for the winter that was to follow. To this day, thirty-four years later, it still remains my favourite album. Hounds of Love helped me discover the other-world that co-exists alongside the mundane, everyday world that I felt so separated from. Since a was a small kid I’d always longed to go ‘home’, even though I hadn’t a clue where this home was. All I knew it wasn’t in the world of work, TV soap operas, eat, drink, sleep, repeat ad infinitum. It certainly wasn’t in 32 Ravenhill Avenue, my Earthly home since birth. This home I was searching for was not to be found in this world. One day you might find your own home. Never stop searching, dear reader.

The Smiths - Hatful of Hollow
‘Hatful of Hollow’ by The Smiths, released in late 1984 was a perfect soundtrack during the four months when my mother left home in August 1985. She was determined to get away from my father’s drunken violence once and for all. When she was gone the house was dead. I’d listen to Morrissey perfectly moan;

I’d rather not go back to the old house, there’s too many bad memories”

Hatful of Hollow was the accompaniment to the emptiness and sadness that permeated through our little house. It was now just me, my da and drunken melancholy. Mother did eventually return, just before Christmas, “just like a moth to a flame” as Morrissey would sing, to eventually get into the old rhythm of drinking and arguing.

We can’t live with each other and we can’t live without each other” went their mantra.

Music had always helped me escape the misery and confusion of who I was. Becoming a young adult had left me with no idea what the future had in store for me. This was the mid-eighties and I was discovering what grown-up life was about, and I didn’t like it at all.
I longed to go back to 1976, to twelve years of age, when I had my pet-dog ‘Sandy’ for company along with a small, portable cassette player, and my five album-tapes I would play until they were nearly worn out; The Beach Boys ‘20 Golden Greats’, Rod Stewart’s  ‘Never A Dull Moment’ and ‘Atlantic Crossing’, The Eagles ‘Hotel California’, and Queen’s ‘A Night At The Opera’. Time however, would not let me stay in 1976. I had fought with everything I had to stop time moving forward, but I failed. It was out of my control.

This was my life - I should’ve been able to dictate what happened. The world said different.

As I write this in the year 2019, I travel back through the portals of time towards both my twelve year-old and twenty year-old self to give them both this one, last message;

1976 Ian and 1985 Ian, your fifty-four year old self from the year 2019, is watching you from afar, via the black eternal void of time. I send you the gift of knowing that in the future you will be surrounded by the love of your wife and children. All will find its own place to settle.
Remember, time is not linear. The past is not back there, the present is not where you sit, the future doesn’t lie ahead. It all happens simultaneously. I am my past self, my present self and my future self all at once. Even though the life-journey will be frightening, don’t fear. It’s all love that’s waiting for you. I will be right here for you, and we are ONE.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Time travel #2 (2019-1972)

The world is full of ‘lost boys’. I’m one of that unfortunate crowd. We drift through life, not feeling any real part of society, sometimes even the human race itself. Part of me has enjoyed being different from the average person, with all the quirks and eccentricity, but a huge part of me yearns for just plain old normality. A world not ruled by anxiety, depression and out-of-the-box thinking.

As I write this now, I long to go back and change the world that I grew up in. No longer do I want the pain of the past - the drunken, violent, abusive parents who destroyed all but tiny fragments of my confidence and self-worth. I want to go back and reassure the young ‘me’ that things will work out, and I will make it through the torturous times.

To do this I must travel back through time. Some say it’s impossible, but to us lost boys it’s a gift we have. Events of the past are not just memories, they are moments frozen in time that can be visited or tapped into, whenever we choose to do so. All that is needed is the individual key to each moment to allow entry into it.

This time, I choose to travel back from this point in time of writing, 2019, to visit my seven, going on eight year-old self, in the year 1972. I want to stand in front of that little boy, put my hands on his shoulders, look him in the eyes and tell him that his future-self is right here, looking after him, guarding him, advising him - and that everything will work out. The presence that I knew and felt back then who was always with me was indeed my future-self, my guardian-angel if you like, trying to steer me in the right direction, away from harm. Many times I didn’t listen to the advice given, but through time I learnt that the entity I knew as “my strange companion” was real, tangible and was a genuine force for good.

Let’s do this. 1972 here we go…

I began the year 1972 aged seven and finished it aged eight. I was a gentle kid, frightened by the outside world. My parents had created such a hostile atmosphere in my own home that my logic turned to the perception that if it was as bad as this in the place where I should feel the safest, namely home, what horrors were out there in the world beyond the ‘safety’ of my own family unit?

I was in year four or ‘P4’ in Nettlefield Primary School, a small school with only a few hundred pupils which sat in a backstreet in east Belfast. Everybody knew each other. It was that kind of school - all kids from the local area who went to school together and came from the same streets.

By the age of seven I was discovering that I was a handy little football player, with a natural, fearless ability to make a ball do what I wanted. When I got my foot on the ball, I would be instantly transported to that other world of magical creativity, in which the only moment that mattered was NOW. I could carve my way through a bunch of opposing players with an ease that surprised me every time, even though I knew I could do it. Playing football to me was like an artistic dance of self-expression. Give me the ball and I was at one with the world. In later years playing football would be replaced by playing and composing music. The purpose and effect was the same - it gave me an escape from a world that I struggled so much to deal with on a mundane, everyday level.

1972 was also the year I was beaten in the school sports-day sprint final by Diane, a girl from my class. I was devastated. How could this happen? Beaten by a girl?! In front of a a packed playground full of kids and parents. As I stood, balling my eyes out, I want to take the opportunity now, to go back to that moment from this year, 2019, to that boy, and pull him to the side away from the crowded playground, to tell him, “It doesn’t really matter that you lost a sprint race to a girl. It’s all GOOD.”

To do this I need the keys to access 1972 from now.

Let’s got to directly to Saturday, 4th March 1972. It was the day of the Football League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, London. Stoke City versus Chelsea. The match finished at 2-1 to Stoke City and the winning goal was scored by George Eastham. The sound of Brian Moore’s commentary on the game still rings around my head as he shouted “The Old Man Has Done It!”,  as Eastham, who was 34 years old at the time slid the ball into the net. I go back to seven year-old me, the boy lying on the floor, head resting on hands, watching this game on TV. I’m an invisible presence, sitting right beside him.

Let’s drift to another point in time, to Saturday 25th March 1972 and The New Seekers singing the song, ’Beg, Steal Or Borrow’ as part of the Eurovision Song Contest. I watched this show on television in our next-door neighbour, Mrs Nelson’s house. I’m guessing my parents were out on the lash and she was babysitting for me. I recall sitting beside the small fireplace watching as Luxembourg won the contest. From the year 2019, I sit invisible in that room in 1972, with Mrs Nelson, her son, Brian, and me. My presence is that of a Spiritual Guard.

Saturday, 6th May 1972. The FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. The biggest football match of the year. Leeds United versus Arsenal. It was a yearly thing to look forward to. It didn’t matter who was playing, the FA Cup Final was the football event of the year. Like the Super Bowl in the US, millions would be glued to the TV set. Leeds won the match 1-0 with an Allan Clarke diving header. I recall Mick Jones suffering a badly dislocated elbow in the last minute of the game that had me feeling squeamish, as the slow-motion would replay his awkward fall over and over again.In the football world that I was so absorbed in, Derby County won their first ever league championship, pipping Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City to the title, with just one point separating all four teams. I tell my over-excited seven year-old self to enjoy those precious moments - there will be many more.

As I delve further into 1972, I have to stop and consider how there are certain defining moments that happen in your life that stay with you, and go on to influence your future life in a major way. These beautiful foreshadowing events happen innocently at a particular moment, but their magic is cast out into your future universe to influence the you in the years to come. One such event happened on Thursday 6th July 1972 - Top Of The Pops was a Thursday night ritual all over the UK and Ireland.The show started in the year of my birth, 1964 and ran for many decades until 2006, when music itself had all but disappeared from the public psyche as being something that mattered, and had transformed into a digital, internet-based form of entertainment. Back in 1972, music was a vital thing in the lives of people and Top Of The Pops was a weekly fix of who was at the top of the singles chart in the UK.

On Thursday 6th July 1972 David Bowie appeared on Top Of The Pops singing his new single ‘Starman’. I watched, transfixed by this odd-looking guy with weird reddish hair wearing a multi-coloured cat-suit, playing a blue guitar. He sang and pointed to the camera “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-hoo…”. That was me he was pointing at. I’m sure he was. He was confirming that he was like me, an odd,  not quite fitting in lost-boy. That was the moment that I wanted to be a musician, (preferably a Rock-Star), just like David Bowie. In the future I never made it to Rock-Star status, but I became a humble musician, continually inspired by Bowie and that moment I unwittingly experienced on an average Thursday evening in 32 Ravenhill Avenue, Belfast.
I go back to that moment now, and put my arms around that seven, soon to be eight year-old boy and tell him, “You’ll be playing guitar like that one day. Heck, you’ll be even writing your own music, just like that guy on the TV.”

See? Time-travel is real. Use the keys to gain access to moments from your past. Feel the feelings. Hear the sounds.Smell the smells, Touch and taste the days before. It’s easy. Just for 1972 alone, I’ve got loads of keys to moments built up and catalogued in my mind. The same with every other year.

The Wimbledon Mens’ Singles Final, played on Sunday 9th July 1972. Stan Smith versus Ilie Năstase, It was a five set marathon. I sat glued to the TV, cheering on the rebel, Năstase. He was the baddie, Smith was the straight-laced good-guy. Smith eventually wore down his opponent to win 4–6, 6–3, 6–3, 4–6, 7–5. I recall him jumping over the net to shake hands with Năstase. Back then Wimbledon winners often jumped over the net, like a tradition. It doesn’t happen any more. The world has moved on.

On Friday 21 July, 1972, Rod Stewart released his album ‘Never A Dull Moment’. My older brother brought a copy home and I played it until I knew every word and every nuance of the music. As the record played on the turntable, I would stare at and absorb the cover artwork, and the sleeve notes. Music allowed me to drift into another world in which nothing really mattered except what was happening right now. The past and future didn’t exist - there was only right here, right now, and Rod Stewart was singing “…and you wear it well…”. That’s all there was, and it was perfect.
I sit beside that seven year-old boy hugging my knees just like him, in a Belfast living-room that smells of tobacco smoke, with whitish, nicotine-stained wood-chip wallpaper and brown furniture. He can feel my presence. There’s no communication, just the two of us and Rod Stewart’s ‘Never A Dull Moment’ playing. What more could a boy want?

You may read this and think it’s insanity to attempt to communicate with your past-self. The lost-boys know different. We, the not-quite-right folk of this world have the gift of secret keys, that the average mortal will never attain. This gift is the price of suffering. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

Goodbye, love and blessings to 2019, all the way back from 1972, and vice-versa.


Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Time Travelling #1 (1980-1940)

Post-major-surgery to remove cancer seems to have given me the ability to transport myself back to certain periods in time. I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2018, and went through a nine-hour operation to cut out the gnarled growths. I’m still here, writing from the edge of trauma, and this allows out-of-the-box thought. This adventure starts in 1980 and goes backwards to the 1940s, just before the days of rock and roll and gradually towards the end of an innocence.

Let’s start in 1980, in a world of restriction. The year the film, ‘Gregory's GIrl’ was made. It was a different realm of being. A world before the internet, in which three television channels existed; BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. A United Kingdom of social confinement. People lived and worked in their own ‘areas’. Outside of that area was terrifying. The baby-boomers were finding their raison d'être.

Those born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were the foot-soldiers of significant post-world-war social change. By the time the creative work of these generations would come to fruition in the future that is the 21st century, they’d be riddled with cancer, dementia, and a host of other ailments. Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, said, “we are the dead”.
It’s then Winston’s girlfriend Julia reminds Winston, “Don't you enjoy being alive? Don't you like feeling: This is me, this is my hand, this is my leg, I'm real, I'm solid, I'm alive!” Julia speaks much wisdom at a time of despair.

I can feel the past as a tangible, visceral reality. They are the feelings, emotions, touch, smell, and taste of naivety and innocence. From the invincible days. When death was an impossible concept. When music mattered, back in a time when rock-stars couldn’t die. No one could’ve known that music would lose its soul to the cold-blooded claws of the internet algorithm. Controlled. Everything today is perfect and controlled. In the future, there’ll not be a glitch. There’ll be only a harmonised, controlled perfection.

I can hear ‘Win’ from David Bowie’s 1975 album ‘Young Americans’, and be instantly transported to a summer afternoon in 1978, when I first heard it aged 13, about to turn 14, one month later. I can feel the heat from the sun. I can smell the cardboard album cover. I can hear the quiet of a mid-July Belfast, when most people were away for their ‘twelfth-fortnight’ summer holiday. I can touch the stillness of our house as my mother and father sat drinking in some local pub. I was okay with that, as it meant I could play the album loud, while watching the rays of the sun come streaming through the blinds into my bedroom.

“What happened to a sense of wonder, on yonder hillside getting dim? Why didn't they leave us, alone...” once sang East Belfast’s Van Morrison.

From the old world to the new 21st century world. Sit in your chair and push the buttons. Stare at your 50” wide rectangle with trance-forming pictures and symbols.
“You are now in a controlled Alpha State”.
“You deserve it”.
“Leisure Audio For The Modern Ear”
*This is trademarked. Do NOT touch*

Somewhere there is a soul in a box. Frightened. Sad. Full of love, creativity, and a smile that hasn’t been smiled in many years. Once, it had a daring and creative rage. Now it’s hammered into submission. The repetitive rain of blows from the algorithm is always too much to bear. The inevitable surrender was held off by a young, rebel heart, kicking and pushing its own way against the tide. But experience will eventually scar that, one too many times. That last particular scar will weaken and change you from a game-changer to non-participant.

This when you need to FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. 
Think of that little inner light, that soul trapped in a box, in a nook within you.
That thing was your dare and rage, your fire.
It’s still there.
Let it out of the box.
Free it.
It’s still there.
Build the tension.
Watch the fire get brighter.
Let your little light SHINE, SHINE, SHINE.

Or don’t. The choice is yours.


Friday, 11 July 2014

Collecting for the Boney

On the 11th July each year the protestant tradition of lighting bonfires on street corners and in the middle of main roads was something all the kids from our area took part in. We had been brought up around this annual custom yet nobody seemed to have any knowledge of why these huge fires were lit all over the country. What it meant to us was being allowed to stay up late to wander around the local streets to watch other fires blazing. We also knew it was about burning an effigy of the Pope on the top of the fire. My mates and I weren't sure why, but the Pope was bad.
When the bonfires were lit, large crowds of people would gather around the flames to drink copious amounts of alcohol. The kids ate sweets and drank lemonade in between fuelling the great fire by throwing pieces of wood and car-tyres on top of it. The crowds sang along to Orange-Band music coming from a record player someone had rigged up in the street. This night of fierce Protestant pride .
My mates and I thought the ‘eleventh night’ was all very exciting. Kids from the various areas would begin collecting wood for ‘the boney’ months before the 11th July in a bid to see which street could create the biggest inferno. This competition led to huge rivalry between the various streets resulting in gangs from one bonfire raiding another to steal their wood. Running street-battles between the rival camps happened regularly. Gangs of kids from seven to sixteen years old faced each other in hand to hand fighting, all in an attempt to steal or protect a few rubber tyres and wooden pallets.
The war between the bonfire-crews entered into espionage tactics with the smaller kids sent out on a reconnaissance mission to monitor the other bonfires. These kids reported back times when the other bonfires were least guarded. The older ones would plan a raid on one of the neighbouring street’s stash of wood. Often the plan was simply to set fire to the rival bonfire in a bid to spoil their chances of having the biggest fire on the day.
In our area there were two main bonfires, the ‘Backer’ and the ‘Rossy’. The Backer came from a patch of ground known to everyone as the ‘back-field’ and the Rossy came from just around the corner in Roslyn Street. There was fierce rivalry between these two factions and each had a crew of around twenty kids. Quite a few violent running battles took place along London Road with bottles, stones and bricks being thrown amidst punch-ups.
Our wee bonfire could not compete on the scale of the Backer and the Rossy. There were only five of us collecting for our boney and we were all nine years of age. We were fodder for the bigger kids. My mates and I often watched helplessly as a large gang of older kids set fire to our puny but proud bonfire and casually walk away laughing at us. We would then begin collecting wood all over again from scratch. If we were quick enough we would get a few fathers out to chase the bigger kids away but they would inevitably return later.
To stop future raids from the bigger kids we came up with a plan of storing our wood on the roofs above the back yards. If the wood was up high, no one would be able to get at it was the logic.
We moved all of our wood onto the little roofs and stood on high amidst it all thinking that no one would ever rob us again. A few rival gangs attempted to storm our walls and as the enemy were hoisting each other up to get on to the roof we would stand on their finger tips or beat them with big wooden sticks. We watched them as they fell back to the ground. The enemy gang would gesture up at us hurling threats and obscenities. We stared back at them smug in our satisfaction that we were unreachable.
That year we managed to gather and build a puny excuse for a bonfire, but regardless, we were very proud of what we achieved. I think we did rather well considering our entire supply of wood was raided three times forcing us to start over again each time. We were persistent little buggers and determined that we would have a bonfire with a party - and that’s what we did.
On the 11th July 1973 as our little bonfire blazed we drank lemonade, ate sweets and listened to the flute-band music being piped out into the street. We all agreed that it would be the last bonfire we would arrange. The enemies made, battles fought and sheer back-breaking work that it took simply to light a small fire was definitely not worth the bother…

Monday, 5 May 2014

Prod-Mods and Taig-Mods (The Art Of Division)


The two political and religious sides of Belfast have lived together like warring teenage siblings who've been forced to share a bedroom for all of their lives. They've argued about and divided almost every conceivable thing, each side claiming certain elements as 'ours'. Whether it be 'aitch' or 'hatch', green or orange, "Northern" or "the North of", Derry or Londonderry, we'll divide anything. Division is what we do best in the endless game of Loyalists and Republicans trying to convince the world how they are right and the other side are the Spawn of Satan.

Many were and still are traumatised by the troubles in Northern Ireland, yet amidst the hatred, killing and mayhem people sought refuge. With me and many others, music was the escape. When you're lying back on your bed, staring at album artwork with headphones on and your favourite band are blasting out your favourite song at deafening volume, the world goes away for a few minutes.

We were musically starved in Belfast. Most of the big-name pop and rock bands wouldn't go near Northern Ireland on their tours. Dublin, London, Glasgow, Manchester et al were feasting on a huge musical pie and we were getting the crumbs and the odd small piece. Those who came to Belfast were treated like gods. Artists spoke of the amazing gigs in Belfast with an audience reception they had never experienced before.

Music would unite people like nothing else. Those who jumped up and down together when AC/DC played at the Ulster Hall in 1979 had not a care in the world if the band were Prods or Taigs. It was the music that mattered. However, we're talking about Belfast here and with our penchant for division, some music fans managed to include rock and pop bands into the conflict.

Yes, we divided certain musicians, bands and artists into Prods and Fenians.

Stiff little Fingers were Prods from Belfast and The Undertones were Fenians from Derry. Paul McCartney was a republican after his 'Give ireland Back To The Irish' song was released in 1971. U2 were regarded as republicans after that fateful night in 1983 in Maysfield Leisure Centre when they played 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. There was an urban myth that Marty Pellow, lead singer of pop-band Wet Wet Wet had stated in a fictitious interview on TV that his hero was loyalist Michael Stone.

That was it. Wet Wet Wet were Prods.

At a Wet Wet Wet 1989 concert in Belfast some of the crowd wore Rangers football shirts and waved Union Jacks to show their support for the band and their apparent Loyalism. This concert drove the band to not play Belfast for another twenty years. 

During the Ska music revival around 1980 there was a story going around about the band Bad Manners and how they gave money to the IRA. They were Fenians. Madness were adopted as the Protestant Ska band for some reason. Therefore, if you had a Madness patch sewn onto your coat you were a Prod. A Bad Manners patch, you were a Fenian.

From a musical perspective I think the Prods got the best band. I'd rather stomp to Madness' 'One Step Beyond' than the faux-West-Indian warbling of Bad Manners' 'republican' singer, 'Buster Bloodvessel' shouting "Leep-O-Fatty-Ya, Leep-O-Fatty-Fatty-Reggae!" 

During the Mod revival at the same time there was a dilemma for Republicans who wanted to become Mods. Everything 'Mod' had red, white and blue and Union Jacks all over it. There was no way a Republican would be seen dead in a Union Jack jacket a la Pete Townsend from The Who. Some clever entrepreneur seized the opportunity and began producing and selling duplicate Mod merchandise except in green, white and gold in opposition to the Britishness that was at the heart of the Mod movement.

We now effectively had Prod-Mods and Taig-Mods.

In Belfast we seem to bring EVERYTHING down to the "are you a Prod or a Fenian?" argument, as if that's all that matters in this world. It's a small, incestuous city where each gesture and articulation can determine which side of the political fence you come from. From which side of a bridge you walk on, to the football team you support, to how you pronounce certain letters of the alphabet, to which music you liked - all had religious and political meaning in Belfast. This was a world that mostly went no further than it's own area, stuck in an endless argument…forever it seems.