Tag Archives: history

Is God still an Englishman?

Chris Bryen & Phil Kane of Wolf's Head

Ye Gods! Who or what are they? They dress only in black. (Johnny Cash afficionados?) They have black faces. (But they’re nothing like the Black & White Minstrels.) They scurry around whacking people with clubs… I’ve given it away now, haven’t I?

You’re still wondering what these gothic and possibly pagan performers have to do with God being an Englishman. Fair enough. Let’s get the Men (and Women) In Black out of the way first.

Danny Graham & Emilia Graham - Wolf's Head & Vixen

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Congratulations – Marriage in China

Marriage Book - China

This is how you get married in China. Thanks to our newly married (Congratulations!) guest contributor who’s currently expat in Beijing. I’ll let M take up the story:

Last week I caught a sleeper train to Changchun on Monday night. I was in a room with 5 big fat Chinese men, one of whom snored like crazy. He was in the bunk above me, and I really thought it would collapse, he was so fat.

I got to Changchun, and remembered how cold it was. Warmer than January, but still around minus 12. Met LN and we went to the registry office, expecting to complete everything that day. China is drowning in official paperwork and red stamps. Turns out the red stamp on LN’s “Hukou” (family book that lists your parents, siblings, and crucially what province you ‘belong’ to) was not clear enough. Continue reading

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What I’ve learned

Its been tumultuous in Blackwatertown Towers lately. Normal service will soon be resumed. Once we establish just what the new normality will look like. But in the meantime, I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned lately.

Yes, it looks like a roof slate because that's what it is. (You get a shiny medal for Sport Relief.) The glamorous person holding the slate/trophy is presenter Rachael Hodges, flanked by "the prestigious" Richard Bacon, and me. I didn't think the beer bottle would be in the picture. Missing from the line-up are top guru Louise Birt, indefatigable Garth Brameld, podcaster Harri Ritchie and inspirational listeners Jon Hillier and the Digger. The award was for the Special Half Hour - SHH.

  1. I haven’t completely lost it, thank God. I’ve just left the BBC after many years, but can proudly brandish two new awards. The first one is the highly prestigious Most Innovative Programme Award from the admittedly slightly obscure annual Audio and Music Awards. I shared it for a radio show I produced up until Christmas. The award-winning bit was the Special Half Hour – SHH – of which it was an honour and a privilege to be part. (Rule No. 1 You don’t talk about the Special Half Hour. But it’s been axed, so I dare to speak of it.)  The second is the also prestigious and much better known Sport Relief Mile. My running partner and I distinguished ourselves by completing the three mile (Count ’em! 3!) circuit before any of the six milers crossed the finish line. (Question: For which award did I contribute more to the sum of goodness in the world?)
  2. Whenever someone claims to be the first to ever do something, they’re wrong. Continue reading

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My favourite St Patrick’s Day joke

So now you know how the miracle happened. Obvious when you think about it really. Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.   (The cartoon is an episode of The Adventures of Festy O’Semtex, from the July 1st 1994 edition of Phoenix Magazine, Dublin.)

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A new story

It’s the best way to put off finishing your book – come up with an idea for a new one. You feel much better putting down ideas and scenes and fragments of conversation for the new one. It doesn’t feel like avoidance at all. Which it is. But in a good way.

So I’m at that excited stage. The slog is some way off. There’ll be some research, but it’s manageable.

It has a name Continue reading

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Oi! No smirking at the back there.

RUC Hastings Street garrison, Brickfields district, Belfast. 1923/24.

What a difference 30 years makes. In this police photograph from the 1920s almost no-one is smiling. I have another of new recruits to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) taken in the 1950s where nearly everyone is beaming. Two photos, two different sets of people, two different times, two different generations.

This one includes the father – my grandfather. When this post was originally published I included his name, rank and where he is in the picture. But I’ve been asked to remove the name – so I have done so.

But he’s easy to spot. The handsome one with the patrician air. (God no, not yon dopey-looking one.)

You’ll notice they’re a serious bunch. I suppose given that they’re in a tough area – the Belfast’s Brickfields police district – and that some of them will have survived World War one, the Irish War of Independence, civil war, pogroms and general rioting – it’s understandable. Or perhaps it was the rule back then. No smiling while on duty. Perhaps Smiler in the back row, left hand side, is actually squinting, not grinning.

I was struck by the contrast between this photo, and another from the mid 1950s. In the later one they’re all smiling. Including the son of the handsome one above. (I hope to put it on display shortly.) Maybe it’s because peace has broken out and war in Ireland is a sufficiently distant memory. They weren’t to know that the next round of hostilities was heading their way in a couple of years time – the IRA’s 1950s border campaign (which is the setting of my book, Blackwatertown).

So the men in this photo are the fathers or uncles of the police officers who fought in the ’50s campaign. They were a formidable bunch.

But back to 1923/24. Does anyone else remember those snake-clasp belt buckles? I remember coveting one when I was small. (Which was only the other day. Or perhaps the day before.)

Perhaps some faces in the picture are familiar. Drop me a line if you recognise anyone. (I’ve posted pictures of some other branches of the family policing tree: Dan Waters & Michael Murphy.)

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The cab home, Belfast

Maddens Bar (from feilebelfast.com)

So I was drinking last thing  in Maddens bar near the centre of Belfast. I’d stolen off to my favourite nook, away from my excellent sisters and the rest of my family because… Because sometimes you just want a quiet pint. And it’s late. And everyone else is tired. And tomorrow is Christmas Eve. So you slope off alone to a cosy corner where you might fall in with this one or that one, with flutes and fiddles doodling away in the background.

No music this night. No great chat either. Marie or Mairead was next to me at the bar. She was with her friends, and looked too young to be a grandmother. But only two months to go, she told me. And she was excited. Above our heads the ceiling was taking a rare pummelling. “Set dancing,” explained the bloke on the other side of me with the four cans of Guinness in a plastic bag. Rhinos, I thought to myself.

Mairead’s friend was bemoaning the lot of women at Christmas – buy the food, cook the food, buy the presents, wrap the presents – but  determinedly independent, she declared she would never let a man to do it for her. Time for me to go. Happy Christmases from me to them and from them to me.

No cars at the first cab company. ABLE Taxis are next. Just the one car left and it’s about to leave. “Sure, squeeze in that one,” they say. “You can be dropped off on the way back.”  So I try the first back door. Oops. Not this side. The woman in there is not moving over, I thought. Wedged pretty tight already. The bloke at the other side shifted into the middle. Snugly packed, we set off west from the city centre on a cold and snowy night. Two in the front, three in the back.

OK, OK, this is not the Falls Rd mural. This take on CHE is by grafitti artist DOLK. His website is http://www.thegiant.org/wiki/index.php/Dolk You might also want to check out Jim Fitzpatrick http://www.jimfitzpatrick.ie/ who created the iconic Che poster (featured on the T-shirt) from Alberto Korda's original photo.

Up Divis Street, the Lower Falls, past the murals – there’s Che Guevara. (He was behind the bar too, under the Hunger Strike commemmorative hurley stick.) On up the road, past the Falls Baths, Jobs & Benefits, the Falls Library, Bobby Sands and his “Everyone has a role to play in the struggle…” Past Cavendish, which always looks odd to me now without the high walls of the barracks blocking out the light.

The woman in the back is from Sydney, Australia. But she doesn’t know Doyle’s chipper on Circular Quay. The driver has been telling us about his visit there. “Great chips,” he says. “it was set up by an Irish man.” She and the bloke in the middle exchange complicit smiles at the driver’s attempts at familiarity.

First stop just past the top of Broadway. She gets out her door. I offer to let her bloke out my door. Oh, I have it wrong. They’re not together at all. He’s with the bloke in the front passenger seat.

Aussie lady is now on the footpath handing cash through the passenger window. The radio crackles. We hear the cab controller back at base reveal that the Aussie lady’s friend has lost her purse. Would the Aussie lady have it? She does. And when she hears that her purseless friend is now at the depot, she offers to pay her fare for her in advance. Back and forth over the crackling connection goes the consideration of this offer. In the end she hands over the whole purse to our driver, to pass to her friend when he gets back to the depot after dropping off his last passenger.

Or, to put it another way, she hands over her friend’s cash and cards to a nameless man she’s never seen before. Crazy? Naive? I can’t imagine it happening where I live now. But on this Belfast journey it seems the natural thing to do.  Is life so different here? Or maybe, to quote a different wobbly woman overheard earlier in the evening: “It must be the Jagermeisters kicking in.” I go for the first explanation.

Off we go again. I apologise to the bloke beside me in the back for assuming he was with the Australian. “No problem,” says he.  We pass St Kevins. The school looks different from the last time I was here. Up the Glen Road. The shops at Gransha look different too. And it’s very quiet. No people out walking in the cold.

We’re nearly at Coolnasilla. The bloke beside me is gathering his cash to pass forward to his friend. He refuses to accept it. They argue back and forth. Back Seat finally wins by revealing that he actually owes Front Seat a pint for drinking one of his, and that another time he had not bought a round as Front Seat had thought. Front Seat admits he was too drunk to notice and doesn’t remember any of this. But it’s as if Back Seat has been storing up these personal failings so as to be able to use them against himself on just such an occasion as this. So his honesty prevails and Front Seat accepts the contribution towards the cab fare.

Stop number two. Too icy to turn off into Coolnasilla, so Back Seat wishes us all a Happy Christmas and gets out to walk the rest of the way home.

We’re on higher ground now, and getting higher still as we drive further out of the city to Poleglass. It’s whiter, colder, frostier, icier. Too icy to leave the main road. “Bit too Christmasy,” says the driver.  “I’ll walk from here,” says Front Seat, handing over his own and Back Seat’s contribution.

Now the long descent back into Belfast. I move into the front passenger seat. The driver is Jim. More crackles from the radio. “They want me to hand over the purse to another driver to get it to her,” says Jim. “No way. It’ll stay in my glove box till I get back to the depot.” He apologises for the long detour I’ve been on. “No,” I say, “I’ve enjoyed it.” We laugh about the whole purse business.

“I could tell you some stories,” he says. “I used to be a bus driver. I’ve been hijacked, bus burned out, you name it.”

He tells me his daughter lives abroad. She was once interviewed over the telephone by George Jones on Radio Ulster. They had a long conversation about the humming bees of Costa Rica. Or was it birds? Jim tells me he’s not long off retirement.

Last stop. I pay for the trip out west and back. “Ah, no son. You’ve given me a tenner,” says he. “That’s only five pounds.”

“Purses, passengers, drivers…” I think to myself. “Is everyone so honest here?”

Or maybe it’s just the Jagermeisters kicking in.

La Boca - Belfast's only Argentinian restaurant. It's in Fountain Street. This is the website http://www.labocabelfast.com/index.html I added this because the food is great and so is the proprietor, Pedro. Good music, beer and atmosphere too. (You might even see yet another pic of that famous son of Galway tucked away here too. One of the Lynchs. Ernesto Guevara Lynch de la Serna. Yup, he gets everywhere.)

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The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

One Christmas drink too many

One Christmas drink too many. (Thanks to savagechickens.com)

 Happy Christmas and a mellow new year from Belfast, which is where I am right now.

People sometimes ask me: If this blog is supposed to be at least partly about your book, where can I read some of it?

Fair question. The answer is here: Here. Now.

The most important lines in any story are the beginning. The stakes are high. Go wrong at the start, and that’s it. The reader has moved on before any emotional committment has formed. It’s easy to cut one’s losses before getting in too deep.

So – with trepidation – here are the opening lines of my book, Blackwatertown.

But first, here’s a little context to the story.  It’s set in rural Ireland, along the border,  in the mid 1950’s. The hero, Macken, is a police sergeant in the RUC, the then police force of Northern Ireland.

And so the story, Blackwatertown, begins – like this:

Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He clenched his teeth, and sucked in through his nostrils the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed down on the polished handle of the baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All  of them waiting, impatient for his signal,  muttering his nickname. He  hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

 The stoney slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his  heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d  feel the tension ebbing from his shoulders. The small smile that would  quietly creep over his face, unbidden and unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place, nor way, for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line.  Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

That’s it. More to come in a while. But I would very much like your comments on the opening.

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Deadly verses

poppy Is this the most dangerous, even despicable, poem ever? You’ll have heard it most likely at   some Remembrance Day service or Armistice Day commemoration. It’s called In Flanders Fields. John McCrae wrote it in May 1915, on the occasion of the death in battle of a friend. The poet himself died in 1918. Here’s the poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I last heard it said aloud at our village service marking the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Some children performed it in the village hall. Overall the service was too religious for me, but I accept that as part of the cultural mores of England. I know it deters other people though, who just want to remember and respect the sacrifices made by their forbears without having to bow their heads in front of priests or ministers.

And I fully embrace the rightness of remembering. The importance of marking past sacrifice, the better to not in future waltz gleefully into new carnage. So the talk given during the service by a youth leader was perfectly pitched – vivid, poignant, educative and heartfelt. He reminded those gathered, especially the children, that those who died in Flanders Field were young people not much older than they are now, just like them, not some sepia-toned figures of myth or history book.  So far so good.

John McCrae c.1914

John McCrae c.1914. Canadian poet, physician & soldier. He wrote In Flanders Fields in memory of a fallen friend.

But then some of our children performed THAT POEM to their school friends and to the rest of us. So what’s the problem? The first two verses are fine. It’s the final exhortation to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then we’re warned: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

So there you have it. Keep fighting or you’ll be letting down your dead comrades. Peace and resolution of conflict are relegated in importance below the need to avoid dishonouring the dead. And what better way, suggests the poem, to honour those glorious dead than to add to their number.

It’s the siren call of the dead-enders, the true believers, the last-ditchers. In their world the dead always trump the living. And the only way to free yourself of survivor’s guilt is to go over the top. So there’s no-one to lean on the brakes.

Sometimes, granted, you have to fight. But shouldn’t the main point of remembrance be to avoid making the same mistakes? To remember the awfulness of it all. To remember that the living are more important than the dead. We should respect the latter, but protect the former.

So I’m tired of hearing that poem. The story behind it is poignant. The impact has been huge. It inspired the tradition of selling and wearing poppies. But instead of “In Flanders Fields”, next year I’d prefer something by Wilfred Owen. Dulce et Decorum Est will do fine. It’s about a gas attack and its aftermath. Here’s an excerpt:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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When Auntie met Nazi

People queueing for Jonathan Ross

People queuing for Jonathan Ross

Just another day at the office, pictured by a colleague. Are they e United Against Facism protestors, cross about the BNP’s Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time. Or the queue for Jonathan Ross? Or Harry Hill?A TV Centre tour? Or the bus queue. Hard to tell.

 But all the fuss of the day reminded me of The Man They Couldn’t Hang and their song “The Ghosts of Cable Street”.

Or this version if you want to see the band.

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