Things Left Unspoken

Recently, I have been watching an excellent four part documentary on Ireland entitled Muide Eire (We are Ireland).  The series concentrates on the representation of Ireland and the Irish in film and television. It is wide in scope, considering such topics as the stereotyping of the Irish as a bunch of God fearing drunks on the one hand to our relationship with the land. Nationalism, religion, land and drink are like footprints on the sand of the collective Irish memory in that they leave their traces. The scars of the nation’s colonised past run deep in the Irish psyche. The dark side of the psyche was under the spotlight in the episode entitled Smacht (Control) and it really hit a nerve. This episode was concerned with the relationship between screen and society and, at a personal level, it was difficult to watch.

Why? Because it dealt with the things left unspoken. These are the parts of history that skulk Grendel-like in the dark margins of historiography. It dealt with the ways in which Irish society treats women, children, the poor and the emigrant. It probed the way history has, at least until very recently, shied away from the uncomfortable truth. It highlighted the ways in which the words of equality and fairness that our founding fathers and mothers hoped we would bring to life at the moment we broke from empire have proved to be nothing more than ephemera.

 Through film and television these ephemeral words are confronted by the vision and viewpoint of the camera. The cold hard gaze penetrates, illuminates and commentates on the dark corners and the truth behind the lie. Films such as Song for a Raggy Boy, H-3 and Kings show the complexity of Irish life from our politics to our relationships. Abortion was covered by Margo Harkin in Hush-a-Bye Baby she stated that when she addressed the audience at the premiere in Dublin she said ‘We all know women who have had this experience’. She was met by silence. Kings shone a light on the emigrant experience and in particular the ‘navvies’ of London. Again, we were in the domain of the voiceless, the forgotten Irish. As one character said ‘we are no longer Irish, no longer Connemara men. We are something else, we are Paddies’.

There is no doubt that confronting the past is difficult. History writers often focus their eye on the movers and shakers of history and in the process forget the hoi polloi. Social history, and in turn the experience of the men and women at its core, is often seen as problematic. They often don’t conform to a countries narrative. Historians often ask: ‘Where are the sources? How can we say, with any degree of certainty, that the individual experienced what they claim to have experienced?’ My answer is: yes, there are difficulties but we must find a way to make sure these experiences are not forgotten. We have a duty to write and to show, both in a factual and fictional way, to make sure that we remember, no matter how distressing.

 And distressing it was. The reason I found it difficult to watch was because of the violence that was committed to children in our little republic. In particular there was a film called Our Boys about the way in which schoolboys were beaten in a school run by Christian Brothers. It was made in 1981 but such was the subject matter that it wasn’t shown till 1991. The director Cathal Black stated that he wished it was shown in it’s time as it had lost some of its impact when watched out of context. Again, things left unspoken. Dark corners left unilluminated due to fear that we would have to confront the darker sides of our nature.

Going to school in 1980s Ireland I had reason to see that darker side. I went to school after they had banned hitting children but it still occurred. Some teachers knew who to hit. They would pick on boys that had family problems or those whose parents didn’t have the words to complain to the school authorities. I remember when I was nine I saw a fully grown man drag one of my classmates across tables. Another time a teacher threw a twelve year old boy against a sink and his crime?  It was to look at a skin mag. I was never hit but what I remember most was the fear. For most of my primary education I was terrified of doing something wrong. I could never admit I was bad at maths because I was afraid I would be ridiculed. Thinking back now what I hated most was the way those in authority misused their power. Unfortunately, what I witnessed was all very minor stuff to what would be uncovered in 1990s Ireland. But watching that documentary made me realise all the little boys that were hurt under our watch. Perfidious Albion wasn’t to blame here. All the hurt of things left unspoken. The screen becomes a mirror reflecting the ambivalence of our society towards those that were the weakest let us hope that in these testing times we never forget the lessons of history.

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Masks

Underneath the ghost light
The painted faces of forgotten players
Watch the empty seats.
 We learn our lines,
A facade of love,
 the grammar of the masters has only served to divide.
We touch for a moment,
 two understudies insecure in our roles.
Deep down we both know we will never shine.

Little Earthquakes

The next album on my review hitlist is a departure from my previous musing and it is Little Earthquakes by the one and only Tori Amos. Twenty years after its release it still remains a remarkably fresh sounding album and one that has had a far reaching influence. Without Amos would we have had the pure rage of Alanis Morrisette? Or the confident sexuality of Alison Goldfrapp? Or the creative force of Bat for Lashes? Maybe we would have, but Amos has certainly helped to shape many diverse artistes.  The first time I became aware of her was through her cover of Smells like Teen Spirit. It was a brave move to cover such an iconic and era defining tune. I am sure many a grunger thought ‘what the hell is this?’ But in many ways Amos was in tune with that movement as they both had a confessional side and they both challenged the conformity that was a hallmark of the late 1980s: a conformity that began to dissipate as both Amos and grunge exploded into the 1990s.

Looking back at the early 90s one can see that a strange surrealism had started to creep into the popular consciousness. David Lynch’s seminal Twin Peaks had arrived and dreamscape and actuality danced a mind-bending waltz into our existence. The walls of communism had begun to collapse and in the western world hope was the watchword. Grunge, melding the two, tapped into that rich seem offering hope to the dispossessed but it did so in surreal terms. Cobain spoke of ‘the mulatto, the albino, the mosquito and, (of course), the libido’. Chris Cornell screamed of searching for a place with his good eye closed and Vedder, knowing he was alive, asked ‘Do I deserve to be? And if so, who answers?’ It was amongst this background that Earthquakes was released and Amos would take the surreal, the serious, the comedic, the theological, the masculine and the feminine and make a beautifully layered piece of art.

Opening with Crucify she asks: why do we have to carry so much guilt and try to endlessly please those who are meant to love us? Her piano playing is a revelation but her vocals are astoundingly emotive. Her voice has the passion and rage needed to question and challenge the patriarchal system that, more often than not, places women in a secondary position. Girl expands on the theme where she states that she has ‘been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own’. Serious lyrics backed by sumptuous strings and a mesmerising melody. Silent all these years looks at relationships and the ways in which the feminine is subsumed and voiceless.  Precious things is a stand out track, a staccato piano kick starts it into life, the drums drive it on, the use of the guitar is atmospheric and the lyrics are searing. Amos is on top form writing ‘because you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus’. As the percussive beating of the piano climbs she delivers one of her best lines about the girls who have taunted her with their ‘nine inch nails and little fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl’. In a word: masterful. Winter is just a beautiful song about her relationship with her father. Her father asks ‘when you going to make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?’ Happy Phantom, China, Leather, Mother and Tear in your Hand are all equally as important to the overall concept and themes of Earthquakes. The album ends with the song Little Earthquakes which is about the way in which the small things in life can rip us apart. But before that there was a truly harrowing song and one of the bravest and honest songs I think I have ever heard. Me and a Gun is an acapella song which details Amos’ experience of being raped. To be honest it would be an injustice to try to find words to describe it but I will say that I think it took a strong, brave and courageous woman to put into song what she experienced. If you have never heard it I urge you to listen to it when you can.  Amos would later co-found RAINN an organisation dedicated to help those affected by sexual violence and abuse.

So, there you have it Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes. It is twenty years old and still a vital record to have in your collection. If you don’t have it then get out there and get it. It is a rollercoaster of a ride. Thanks Tori.

Liminal

Of late I have been in that space of inbetweeness: I have not been living in the past, present or future.  I am in a liminal mood and I suppose over the course of a lifetime we all hit these emotional doldrums. I think the first time that most of us experience this feeling is in that awkward phase just before you become a teen: you don’t belong to being either a child or a teenager and society doesn’t really know how to treat you. For me the next time I experienced this feeling was when I left secondary school: I had passed my Leaving Cert but hadn’t a hope in hell of attending a university and as a consequence I didn’t have a clue what to do with myself. However, I never really got the chance to settle into a steady rhythm as tragically my mother died just before I was twenty-one.

Now for most people becoming twenty-one is a rite of passage, a time to let loose and celebrate the joy of life. Alas, for me I was faced with the very horrid face of mortality. I do not think I shall ever find the words to truly express the trauma I felt and the sense of helplessness that followed. Suffice to say I self-medicated with booze. Time marches on, not because you want it to but because it must. At the time I felt I was dealing with it all but dear reader I wasn’t dealing with it at all. I disappeared into a liminal place: a place between living and grieving.  Every time an event occurred like a wedding or passing an exam I would always miss my mother. Oh, and things fell apart, schisms grew and some of those wounds will never heal.  It is all rather depressing is it not? Yes, it is and you know why? Because our society no longer has coping mechanisms for dealing with the grief of loss never mind the actual loss. Sometimes life sucks and that is that and there is no answer.

Well, those inbetween days are back.  Hope they pass soon.

UB40 File

UB40 File:

 

The albums that I have looked at thus far have two things in common: they are both anarcho-punk records and I was listening to them in my early teens. Albums remind me of how I felt when I first listened to them; they can transport me to a time and a place and can stir up the emotions that I felt back then. Of course, an album, like any good piece of art, can constantly renew itself according to the changing mood or life cycle of the individual. UB40 File has this capacity in spades. Unlike my other two choices this band aren’t punk but rather reggae and I wasn’t listening to this in my early teens but rather I came to appreciate it as I was in the latter stages of that tumultuous time. First off I do need to clarify that this choice is technically not an album per se but rather a collection which, comprises the bands debut Signing Off along with a few EPs. UB40 are generally known for their cover albums and as a consequence are rather unfairly written off. Some would accuse them of the homogenisation of reggae and others might say they have no right to be playing reggae in the first place because the majority of the band are white guys from Birmingham. Look, bands playing covers is a debate that always divides music fans some are bad i.e. Scissor Sisters Comfortably Numb springs to mind but some covers are fantastic for example Whiskey in the Jar by Thin Lizzy (more languid than the original and because of this captures the mood of the lyrics more concisely). So, I’ll leave the whole cover thing aside for the moment.  As for homogenising reggae, well people do have a point with that one but I suppose that all underground music has to move into the mainstream at some point and UB40 can’t be blamed for people buying their music. Do they have a right to play reggae? Absolutely. Bands like UB40 represented a multicultural Britain and more importantly a multicultural Birmingham. This was the music that they grew up with; it was part of their everyday life. Jamaica and Jamaicans had changed the culture of Britain. The Clash played reggae covers, Don Letts dub soundsystem was the pulse of the early punk movement and the two-tone bands that followed had brought to the foreground how two cultures could mix the whole together. UB40 were a reflection of their society, they were a multiracial band doing what they did best although they were aware that this society wasn’t without its problems.

 

A good album should reflect the life of those that made it but a great album should tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the life and times of the listener and this is what makes UB40 File such a great work.  The opening track ‘Tyler’ is about Gary Tyler and the alleged miscarriage of justice in his case and highlights the racial tension that still existed in America. The subject of race runs through the album with ‘King’ asking what has happened to the dream of MLK and a plaintive cover of one of the true great protest songs ‘Strange Fruit’. A year after these songs were released Britain would be rocked by race riots showing that UB40 could sense the problems bubbling underneath. The name of the band was also, in and of itself, a political statement coming as it does from the Unemployment Benefit card, number 40. Unemployment was a hot topic, ‘Little By Little’ deals with the issue of poverty and the inequity between the rich and the poor. The lyrics are backed by a lively skank, the music offering hope to the listener. ‘Madame Medusa’ is a dub heavy tune castigating Thatcher’s Britain (it is funny that in all the three albums I have looked at she looms large. I wonder is it true that great art comes from great suffering, if indeed that is the case Irish bands will be knocking out classics for years to come). Cutting sharp guitars, bollocks rattling bass, the thwack of a snare and the blare of sax with biting social commentary make for a great album: this was the sound of a band on form. Smoke nearly drifts from the speakers.  Themes turn to larger concerns particularly on ‘Food for thought’ and ‘The Earth dies screaming’. The former is a song about famine in Africa, a serious subject but you can’t help but want to dance to the groove that the band lay down, the latter looks at the possibility of the end of days and the slow, lazy bass line is up there with anything committed to vinyl by ‘Family Man’ Barrett or Robbie Shakespeare. Throw in a few instrumental jams in the shape of ‘Adella’ and ‘Reefer Madness’ and millions of socially conscious stoners were happy out.

 

Being happy out is exactly what a body of music should do to the listener. Even though the albums I have looked at so far do have heavy lyrical themes they do bring me a lot of joy. They remind me of what it means to care about the society that surrounds me both at the local and the international level. In many ways music should transcend ideas of nationalism, UB40 are an English band influenced by the music of the former colonies, I am an Irishman listening to them. Three distinct cultures enmeshed through a series of 12 notes and 26 letters. Themes of love, injustice and poverty are universal. As I originally stated albums have a capacity to bring us back to a time and place, in the case of UB40 File it transports me to the seventeen to twenty year old me. It calls to mind friends that have fallen by the wayside, a lifestyle that is now out of reach and endless nights of booze, laughs and more. A place where possibility stretched ahead and things seemed purer. Of course, nostalgia makes fools of us all and I am drifting into the Irish malaise of cosy sentimentality. Great art should endure and this album does it’s themes of social inequality, racism and poverty still resonate and as more and more people join dole queues UB40 remind us just what is possible when you sign off.

It had to happen…

It had to happen i.e. I was going to write about History at some stage…It just took a time for me to remember why I fell in love with it in the first place. And why do I love it? Because it makes me think but more importantly it makes me feel E. H Carr in his, for the time, groundbreaking lecture series asked ‘What is History?’ He asked us to rethink what we knew and to move out from the shadows of Victorian certainty, to break the bonds of the belief that the historian was an impartial observer. As he said ‘The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate’. I love that quote and can imagine dusty old professors as they read it in the 1960s spluttering up a lung as their monocles fall into a glass of brandy.

 And why did they nearly choke on their brandy? Because Carr was pointing out that as a species we are informed by our society, we choose what we think is important and we are told by those in the know what we should and shouldn’t value. Therefore the objective historian does not exist. People feel for a history; feel for what calls out from the past. Our culture informs us and shapes how we relate to history. Take Russia, for me it is always hard not to get swept away by the romantic scope of it history: the Mongol invasions, Ivan the Terrible, the Romanovs, Peter I and his wife Catherine, Napoleonic War, Serfs, Cossacks and Communists, the Red and White armies and the rise of the soviet. Over my childhood, both America and Russia loomed large. You could feel it, comedies were informed by it, drama was shaped by it and sport was a battleground in which two ideologically opposed forces battled it out. But we were always told that the Russians were the bad guys and that was that. They were nothing more than Atheists and Commies according to films. Rocky had to beat one of them and Rambo wiped them out in Afghanistan. Case closed they were the bad guys. Look I’m not saying Stalin was a good guy, indeed he was nut, but what I’m saying is that for a time nobody talked about old Russia, nobody highlighted that millions of people starved under the monarchy, the films didn’t show the people under the Communist yoke and their struggle. Those facts didn’t suit the agenda ‘our’ society informed us and we defined ‘them’ as other and with it enter the world of the bias.

Carr was right and as he said ‘Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’ Why? I hear you ask, well because that is where bias lives. Being biased isn’t always a bad thing for instance we are biased towards members of our family, we want them to do well and to succeed. As you can probably guess I had a secret and biased regard for the USSR in the 1980s. Not because my 11 year old self was a card carrying Communist but because it was a bit taboo to shout for the bad guy, I was contrary and somewhere in myself I always wanted to be an historian. I wanted to know why they were seen as the bad guys. I wanted to know were they that bad and if so why?  I was biased but only because I am human. Therefore the historian cannot write an objective history but that is no bad thing. Think of the biased sources we have around us particularly the personal letters, diaries and memoirs that foreground how people felt.

Now the first time I can remember feeling anything about academic history was hearing about the Vikings coming to Ireland. A nasty bunch that wore horned helmets (they never wore horned helmets as in battle all you would have to do is grab the horns which rather handily doubled up as handle bars and then you could pummel the shite out of them). They were nasty to monks but the bit that impressed me was after Brian Boru defeated them he was killed by one. Now it is not the fact that Boru was killed that impressed me but the grief and anger that followed. The Irish captured the assailant, disemboweled him and tied him to a tree by his entrails- now that, my friends, is history come alive.  But probably the history that spoke to me the most back then was Irish myths especially Cuchulainn, his origin story, the cattle raid and his death. He was hardcore: he killed his best-friend Ferdia and he also killed his son oh and it was set in Ireland and that simple idea sold it to me. Here was a mythological cycle set in my own backyard. But what really struck me was the feeling, I wondered how he felt when he killed his best friend and how he was so feared that when he died his enemies still wouldn’t approach him. I know they are myths but there is history within, it reveals the culture and ideas of those that created the narrative but more importantly it is meant to make us feel something. Such a simple idea isn’t it?

To me history has always been more then an academic pursuit. I see the threads that connect us to our past and in doing so I feel connected to that past. I think about my forebears and somewhere inside me I know that they are a part of me. I look at a building and in my minds eye I can see the people that passed through it, lived in it and died in it. When I visit Kilmainham jail I can’t help but feel moved by the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, the romantic in me knows that the sacrifice was worth it and that no amount of corruption can ever take away what they gave us: our country. To paraphrase Yeats they hurled the little streets upon the great. How did they all feel in those last hours or as they tied the blindfold round them? I am sure their friends and families must have cried bitter tears but then I am sure that the British families that lost theirs felt the same way. 1914-1918 years that must have known so much weeping and so much pain the soil of Europe sodden with the blood of young men. Sometimes history offers no hope and no lesson. Why? Well I suppose human beings have no rhyme or reason. The way we react is not bound by a set of rules even though history books often present it in that way.

For a time I got lost in these books, in essays and in journals. The academic within made me forget why I loved history in the first place. I worried about grades, about marking and about deadlines. And, like an old couple that resents each other, history and I constantly bickered for a time. We took each other for granted and then we ignored each other, each of us could only see each others faults. After a time though I missed history and we reconciled. For this I would like to thank Dr Lucy Worsley (below) and her wonderful programmes especially Elegance and Decadence: the age of the Regency. She reminded me what history really is: a dialogue with the past, a celebration of people, a feeling that you get when something interests you and last but not least it can be fun. An old tutor of mine once said: ‘We are not the great unwashed looking at history with our faces pressed against the window, we are part of history and we help shape it.’  Words I forgot but in the end it had to happen: I’ve fallen in love with history again.

 

Worlds Apart

Continuing my ‘albums that never make it on to greatest albums list’ I decided to cast an eye on the Subhumans. Now before I start I do need to clarify that there were two bands with this moniker: one from Canada and the other from England. The band I am writing about is from England. I could, if I so wished, have concentrated on nearly any release by this band such is the quality of their work and in the future I may review another but for the purposes of this blog I am concentrating on the album ‘Worlds Apart’.

Released in 1985 on their own record label Bluurg the Subs were out of time with the commercial industry that existed around them. In the world of Wham, Madonna and Phil Collins, this band was as welcome as Keith Moon lecturing at a driving safety course.  The album starts with a heart beat bassline on the instrumental entitled ‘33322’ which fades into ‘British Disease.’ Lead vocalist and main lyric writer Dick Lucas rips into a system that has produced an underclass of people hell bent on rioting. Goading the British establishment he proclaims ‘you thought this country was so great, nobody could ever hate the way the system treated them and then you wonder why they burned your buildings down.’ It seems that Britain still has some of the same problems today, unfortunately it no longer has voices in musical culture that shows a way in which  to harness this anger and, in turn, turn it into something productive. The band (Bruce on guitar, Phil on Bass and Trotsky on drums) back up their main man with a frantic guitar and bass riff driven by razor sharp drumming. The opening track spells out the mission: this is a state of the union polemic from the neglected underground.

‘Heads of State’ follows and imagines a political world where those that rule simply replace their head with a new when the situation dictates. Lucas could see that the politics of pure spin was just around the corner and things were gonna get worse. The guitar swings and is reminiscent of a folk type song and again matches the singer’s observations. Moving on the world of cheap booze, cheap cigarettes and cheaper sex is put under the microscope and found wanting in the song entitled ‘Apathy.’ The riff is a killer and the chorus is a staccato burst that lifts the song to another place.  Next up is the Reggae tinged ‘Fade Away’ where Lucas implores the listener to live their life before it is over. The theme of mortality looms large in this tune but then we are back to matters temporal. ‘Businessman’ continues the relentless attack with the bands ire focusing on the money hungry yuppie culture of the 1980s. The pacy overdriven riff propels the song along. It nearly skims across the rhythm section and the band again adds a stop/start component which foregrounds a tight unit, one that was on top of their game.

In my mind, one of the strongest songs on the album is ‘Someone is Lying.’ It is such a dark song which, concentrates on workers who have to get rid of nuclear waste. The negligence of the state in ensuring the safety of the workers leads to cancer. A stabbing guitar captures the mood and the looping bass underpins the whole. Lucas is an astute observer of the worst aspects of human nature and shows the way in which big business slimes out of it’s obligation to those they employ. They inform the press that the deaths are caused by ‘coal dust, it’s cancer, it’s normal they say’.  There is hope, for a lone voice cries out ‘these people are dying, someone is lying’. The song sums up Thatcher and Reganite economics: fuck the little guy, screw the worker-the future belongs to me! (To borrow a phrase from a famous musical).

Go buy it , find it on youtube, contact the band themselves or do what I used to do back in the day and record it on to tape (Home recording is killing music-remember those stickers on your vinyl album ha ha the fuckers never saw what was coming). Other highlights on this album include ‘Pigman’, Get to work on time’ and straight-line thinking’ to name but three. Right, when you listen to it you’ll think ‘Dick can’t sing’ and ‘the production is a bit tinny (it is they had fuck all money). But consider all the cocksuckers in the music business that can’t sing! I hope that somewhere in this world there are teens that want to set the world to rights and that couldn’t give a fuck about the mass produced puke fest that we call music these days. That somewhere they find this band and album and that it does for them what it did for me: change my life, make them pick up an instrument and make some noise before it is too late. Yes, somewhere in music lies hope, lies stories, lies voices that are different and lies a road map to a different future. To me punk changed my life, got me to think and eventually propelled me to university and beyond. It showed me I could be more than I ever thought possible-it remains to me one of the most positive and life affirming art forms this beautiful planet has produced. To Dick, Bruce, Phil and Trotsky wherever you are I would just like to say ‘Thank You’.