There May Be Blood

A private members’ bill on abortion is creating a stir south of the border while in Belfast a woman chains herself to Queen’s University, protesting female marginalisation. The storm clouds are gathering on the political intransigence that persists around women’s issues.  I speak to Baroness May Blood, a founding member of the Women’s Coalition, on the challenges posed by Northern Ireland’s political peculiarities and how to rally women together to make the system work for them.

Baroness Blood stresses that she has always needed to be cajoled to step into the limelight. Linen mill trade unionism at fourteen, plunging into the dicey waters of Northern Irish politics in 1996 and even the peerage that followed three years later were all the fruit of gentle arm twisting. After mere moments in her presence it’s hard to imagine a time when May Blood wasn’t steadfast and daring. Her vocal opposition to the escalation of sectarian attitudes in her neighbourhood at the height of the Troubles in 1971 provoked an arson attack that would blow out the windows and take down the ceilings, forcing her from her family home. This would launch forty years of community service and see her as the first female peer from Northern Ireland in the House of Lords.

The Women’s Coalition addressed the absence of women at the 1996 Peace Talks table. Yet it was a duty of reluctance. Inquiring of the then Minister of Northern Ireland Michael Ancram if they could be part of the negotiation process, the women were intensely wary. “If you asked any of the six or eight of us at that time, we all hoped he’d say no because we really didn’t think we knew what we were talking about.”

Indeed, Blood – who makes the trip to London every week to spend three days on House of Lords business – opted out of standing as a candidate. “I wouldn’t stand as a candidate so they asked me to be the campaign chair – now what did I know about it? But I soon learned; you had to be in front of every television camera in the world because they were all here. We were unique – Protestant and Catholic, we were orange and green coming together.”

It was the trade unionist ethos that united the women at the helm of the Women’s Coalition and urged them to overcome the instinct to defer to the traditionally macho rhetoric of Northern Irish politics. “All my trade union teaching – and I have to say most of the people I was involved with in the Women’s Coalition were all Trade Unionists, so we all came from the same place in that respect: Monica McWilliams, Avila Kilmurray, Bronagh Hines – all that learning all those years earlier actually fed into it.”

When the dust of the Good Friday Agreement settled it soon became apparent that the hope of a normalised politics was still a long way off. The posturing and histrionics of the main parties saw almost ten years of stalemate and lapsed deadlines. The popularity that brought the Women’s Coalition two Assembly seats in 1998 dissipated in a failed Westminster campaign from Monica McWilliams in 2001. What impact does Baroness Blood think the group has had on today’s politics? “About four or five years ago, we had a wake and buried it. I was never interested in a woman’s party – I’m not a feminist in that sense. I think the Women’s Coalition was set up for two reasons. To get women into the front line of politics and secondly to get the other parties to see there was a women’s vote which was important. And both of these things were achieved. Today we have women ministers but that would have been unheard of fifteen years ago.”

When asked why only one in five Stormont MLAs are women, Blood makes the point that women themselves are at fault. “The system is not actually to blame because women won’t put themselves forward. There is a big move on now about quotas. I have to tell you personally, I don’t believe in quotas. I can see the merit of getting people there but if I was sitting on a committee simply because I had to fill a seat or tick a box I don’t think it would empower me very much. If I get there under my own steam then I’m more likely to stand up for myself. I don’t want it to be like I could send a photograph to sit on my seat.

“I was on a committee with twenty-three men and when I made some contribution it was as if someone had opened the window and let the air in, and they all went on with the conversation. One day I really lost my temper. I thumped the table and said “Watch my lips, I’m speaking!”. That became my nickname for a while; “Here’s Watch-My-Lips coming”. That’s the kind of women we need, we need women who are willing to take these men on.”

Baroness Blood argues equipping women with the tools necessary for public office will in turn give them the confidence to seek to be where decisions are made. “Bronagh Hines saw that women weren’t into public speaking. After the Good Friday Agreement, Bronagh raised money for a project called Democracy, asking parties to put forward a number of women and they were taught skills – negotiating, public speaking, how to face the camera if the media were about. It was because of that women came through.”

Baroness Blood’s work on the ground to reach out to working class women has taught her that there is plenty of psychological baggage at play. In 1988 she set up a Shankill Women’s Forum. In the inaugural meeting 150 women listened to Edwina Currie (incidentally, on the back of her egg controversy-instigated Cabinet resignation) on getting women involved in politics. Yet each subsequent meeting saw the numbers drop off substantially.  “The women weren’t coming because you had a small core who came in with jackets, trousers, filo faxes and diaries. The majority of women didn’t go back saying “Oh, they’re professional”. Among women they didn’t even feel they belonged. They felt they’d look silly. It meant that the whole thing fell apart and we have no women’s forum now. There was a woman who came in to chair the meeting wearing a white blouse and all of a sudden she got up and put on her jacket and buttoned it up. This girl beside me said to me, “Oh, there’s nothing like showing your authority!” It wouldn’t strike me, sitting there. But it struck her.

“We’ve got to get to the stage where women get real with themselves. Going to the House of Lords I’ve seen women who are some of the strongest I’ve ever known – you wouldn’t cross them. No shrinking violets, I’ll tell you that. Here in Northern Ireland, if we’re ever going to equalise the situation we have to get rid of the shrinking violets and put a couple of roses up instead.”

Baroness Blood’s passion for activism is clear to see, though never more so than when she remembers recently meeting a woman in her early twenties along the peaceline. I’m convinced her zeal would rouse the most cynical-minded. “She came up to me and said, “You’re the reason I got into politics. You came to our school to talk about the trade unions and women in politics” – and she’s a Sinn Fein councillor in the City Hall now. The party she joined is irrelevant; that young women took the message and the like of her will change the whole thing around. If you really want to change the system the only way to do it is from the inside.” When women like Mary Robinson and Mo Mowlam are visible, others dare to be ambitious. “All of a sudden women say “Hold on a second, it’s possible to have the top jobs.”

The struggle to protect the quality of daily life of the neighbourhood in the face of the raging ideologies of the Troubles left community workers in a privileged space between the two factions. Curiosity impelled them to seek out their counterparts on the other side of the religious divide. They were eager to learn from their shared experiences. Immediately Baroness Blood was struck by the feeling they had been pawns in a power play of the age-old strategy of “divide and rule”. “To our absolute amazement we had the same problems – teenage pregnancy, male suicide, mental health, poor housing, under-achievement in education – exactly the same on both sides. We began to say “Hang on here, we’ve been sold a pup”.

How does she explain the attacks on community workers that continue today?  “While we have moved on apace, we have never really dealt with sectarianism. I personally feel – strange as it may seem, twelve years on from the Good Friday Agreement – we have a more divided society than we ever had. I don’t believe integrated education is the answer, but I believe it’s part of the answer. We have to mix people up at an earlier age. This part of the Shankill, you’re working among young people who have never even met a Catholic and they only know about a Catholic what they’ve been told – now how do we crack that?”

For Baroness Blood, women hold the key. She has said on numerous occasions that when history of Northern Ireland is written it will have to be about women. “Someone asked me once – how’d you get to be such a good public speaker? Somebody made me angry. You show me a room full of angry women and you’ll have all the best speakers you’d ever want. I learned that in the mill- there were some very eloquent women when they took it into their heads.

“It’s time women stood up – I don’t know any job that a man could do but a woman couldn’t – I don’t know any.” Yet her thoughts on “feminism” remain problematic. “By the same token, I don’t know how you explain a “women’s issue”. I don’t really know what a “women’s issue” is. To my mind there’s a male interest in all of them. What are they talking about? Is it what is deep in a woman herself – the fact she won’t put herself forward – is that the issue? Children, poverty – across the board men and women are both involved.” It is arresting to see someone wrangle with feminism with such vigour and honesty. Instinctively wary of ideology, she grapples instead with its nuts and bolts in the context of everyday life.

In spite of this resistance to the label, her advocacy of abortion provision in Northern Ireland would be considered feminist in spirit. Recent Westminster cheerleading for reproductive rights in developing countries got under Baroness Blood’s skin. “That’s one of the things that annoyed me in parliament. These people were all nodding “yeah” and I was really fuming. I think it’s so blasé for people in a parliament that denies women in Northern Ireland the right of choice to say “Right, we’re going to give it to Somalian women or Afghan women.” That really annoys me, and when I raise that issue people say (feigns horror) “Don’t raise that for fear of damaging the peace process!” I say, “Well if the peace process is that fragile, it deserves to be damaged.” I have a very deep Christian faith that teaches me that abortion is wrong but I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to make that choice.”

It’s simply a question of equality for Baroness Blood. “If I give women in Newcastle upon Tyne the right to have an abortion then I should give it to Newcastle in County Down. It’s her choice.” She is excoriating of her colleagues in parliament. “How disingenuous can you be when you don’t even give it to a part of the UK? Until we come forward on those issues we’ll always be treated as second class citizens by men.”

Abortion and integrated education are two hot button issues where Northern Irish political leadership recoils from reality. Local politicians refuse to address the inconvenient truth of an estimated 67,000 women since 1967 who have journeyed to England or Wales seeking abortion. Is this political system capable of satisfying the needs of a modern Northern Ireland?

“One of these (Stormont Assembly) ministers had the cheek to say ‘Well, there’s no demand for it’, and I said ‘What – do you think someone’s going to come up and knock on your door?’ When I talk to women in Sinn Fein they tell me that this is one of the most important issues they have – but they’re not pushing it. They don’t want to rock the boat, or be divisive in the party. Why not? We’ve got to get there. It’s the same with integrated education. Sinn Fein is the only party that doesn’t have it as part of their policy. Privately they absolutely support it, but it’s not party policy.”

Is it the electoral expediency of keeping the communities divided that prolongs this segregation? “Absolutely. That’s the fear. They don’t give a damn about working class kids, or where they’re educated. The problem is they could lose their power base. It’s the same with the Roman Catholic Church. They aren’t thinking about their people, they are thinking about themselves. If women are going to get serious about this and move into the twenty-first century in the way they should – then I think they have to take those issues head on.”

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, 1972

Twitching, pink-eared rabbits crowd the opening credits begetting on a monstrous scale to Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave. Expectations are secured; let the scratching of the eternal itch commence.  Woody Allen’s adaptation followed three years of  roaring success of Dr. David Reuben sex manual of the same name, and the film itself was to attract massive audiences.  What’s New Pussy Cat? (1965) and Casino Royale (1967) are testament to the appetite for titillation that had sprouted in the previous decade. However, the randy antics of an over-sexed, pawing Austin Powers-styled character that had served as a gateway for sexy play 1960s wasn’t going to cut it as the expression of this impulse for liberalised sexual attitudes began to flourish.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex toes a more prurient side to Woody Allen’s preoccupation with the fraternising of the sexes. Gratifyingly, the Reuben cultural hysteria is tapped into while much of its more questionable content is spurned. It was credited with presenting more progressive stance on sex, yet Reuben’s treatise on homosexuality as a “perversion” demonstrates how primitive a “progressive” sex academic can be. Allen manages to cover bestiality to sadomasochism with a studied irreverence, bypassing any such moral posing. The eight free-standing vignettes fall under the chapter headings of Reuben’s book; pointedly none are ever really addressed. Indeed, the promise of the film’s title is similarly unfulfilled; it effectively presents the excuse for Allen to run riot in taboo needling.

The opening segment, “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?” tells of the plight of Woody Allen’s failing jester/ stand-up – “T.B. or not T.B. – that is the congestion” – to seduce his Queen played by Lynn Redgrave (who coincidentally featured in Kinsey of 2004, a very different treatment of a sexologist). Ingenious casting sees Redgrave gently and knowingly rib her arch theatrical background. Deftly, she darts between genre, connecting the classical dots of Allen’s Marxian Tudor romp.

Now with most grievous dispatch,

I will open her latch

To get to her snatch.

Gene Wilder’s turn as Dr. Doug Ross (a certain paediatrician of County General wouldn’t be pleased), the Jackson Heights G.P. who falls for an Armenian sheep proves to be one of the more memorable segments. Wilder’s accented earnestness is crucial to the comedy. The courtship is played out from the incipient hope of love’s young dream, caressing a Lambswool sweater, to its inevitable demise, leaving Wilder in the gutter, guzzling “Woolite”.

Allen’s previously observed predilection for genre contortion re-emerges in the segment entitled “What are Sex Perverts?”. “What’s My Perversion?”, Allen’s What’s My Line? quiz show parody features a celebrity panel who must identify contestants’ fetishes. Regis Philbin and Robert Q. Lewis are numbered among the panel of celebrities (Lewis, who elicits a particular warmth of feeling in this An Affair to Remember devotee, deserves special mention as the TV interviewer who facilitates the encoded message of affection from Cary Grant’s Nickie Ferranti to Deborah Kerr’s Terry McKay).

In the final two vignettes Allen returns as his stock-in-trade bumblingly inadvertent hero. The former dabbles with the hammer horror genre: John Carradine is the Frankenstein-esque Dr Bernardo, the manic sexologist whose contributions to the field include  “the connection between excessive masturbation and entering politics” and the discovery that “the clitoral orgasm should not only be for women”. Allen plays his new student whose major accomplishment to date is the publication of “Advanced Sex Positions: How to Achieve Them Without Laughing”.

The film closes with “What Happens During Ejaculation”- Allen’s interest in sex has been exclusively male-focused and so it’s a highly appropriate choice of subject. Reminiscent of “The Numskulls” comic strip from The Beano, the action takes place in the inner-space of a man during a dinner date with the hope of getting his rocks off. Burt Reynolds is an operator in the nerve centre, directing the offensive strategy of each body part, involving a great deal of ducking and diving to complete the mission. Attention to detail is central; of the many obstacles a priest has hijacked the conscience: “We found him tampering in the cerebral cortex, turning up the guilt reflex”.

The spermatozoon considers the possibility of a homosexual encounter

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask displays once again Woody Allen’s soft spot for genre-play. He wields Shakespeare, Fellini and campy horror so as to create separate worlds in which the increasingly nuanced Woody Allen figure can run riot. Its format could see it considered less significant or frivolous yet as snapshots they necessitate economy and finesse. Nonetheless – for all the sheer delight in Allen’s devilry –  I will admit I’m chomping at the bit for when Diane Keaton will be allowed out to play again. On to Sleeper!

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Desperately Seeking Janelle Monáe

Watching the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, I was taken by a blind impulse to see Janelle Monáe on stage, in the flesh. Much has been said about how the scintillating appearance rocketed her critically acclaimed 2010 album The ArchAndroid (Suites I and II) in the Amazon charts by almost 5000%. For me, on 26th June the Wondaland Arts Society intruded into my living room and propelled me from Armagh to Brugge days later. It was an enterprise that comprised thirty hours of travel, excessive airport dwelling, and at one point straying into the Belgian capital’s labyrinthine hinterland, rarely seen by the average tourist. Our presence was heralded by a seasoned gentleman drifter – not without a certain charm – who bestowed my fellow adventurer Helen with the most gentle of caresses to her back in welcome. Needless to say we soon quickened our step out of there.

Inevitably I am left the richer for our efforts. Prior to Monáe’s arrival on stage, the Belgian audience is striking in its serenity. Nervously fingering my bow tie, I notice that my own very modest attempt at the Monáe pompadour prompts polite sidelong glances from curious neighbours. A false sense of self-aggrandizement surges in my bones. Maybe exhibitionism comes more naturally to me than I’d thought! Dickensian baton-wielding pallbearer, MC and chief rabble-rouser George Two Point Oh takes to the stage to stir this bunch from their reverie and conjure up Janelle Monáe. Ripples of anticipation circulate as the “Suite II Overture” commences in a set-list largely realising the concepts of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), consistent with its origins as one entity, interdependent and whole. When Monáe reveals herself from beneath a hooded cape during the opening song “Dance With Me”, the air is thick with the corporeal energy emanating from this intense, spry figure until a spirited irreverence is betrayed by the roguish flash of her widening eyes.

There is a joyous, collaborative spirit at the heart of the intricate stage tableau, Ziegfeld-esque in scope and bursting the stage at the seams. Superlatively ambitious, every moment mesmerises. Stalking Nazgûl Wringwraiths, recalibrated watusi-frugging go-go dancers, vignettes of zombie shoot-outs and the visitation of the artist’s muse make it a feast for all senses. The theatrics are cranked to a level that is truly thrilling. It comes as no surprise to learn that Monáe was trained at the New York American Musical and Dramatic Academy (coincidentally based in Florenz Ziegfeld’s erstwhile home), and headed for Broadway when a change of heart rerouted her to Atlanta. From a female boarding house she shepherded her independent record label and umbrella creative movement, the Wondaland Arts Society. I like to imagine these ideas took seed in the boarding house of Stage Door of 1937 starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers among a group of aspiring stars of the stage, scrapping for the roles that fall their way. Indeed Monáe has stated a great affinity for Hepburn, their shared straight-backed, forthright manner and steely gravitas mark them as women who dare. Monáe has spoken of playing golf with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Hepburn ripping up the turf in Bringing Up Baby springs effortlessly to mind.

Reminiscent of Anna Leonowens’s lessons in The King and I, in the finale “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” Monáe plays teacher to her spectators who follow her scatting example.

At the breakdown of the song, she coaxes her band mates to lie down as the voices are stripped away to her lone soothing voice, she then wordlessly cajoles the crowd to sit down in a simulated group breather for puffed-out, over-excited tykes after a run-around. One woman, front and centre, will not budge.

Of course.

There’s always one. A fierce battle of brassy wills follows. Monáe doesn’t blink, she barely moves. Her face is simply fixed on an ever so slight frown and with one small gesture of the hand she persists in ushering the impertinent woman to sit down like her well-behaved classmates (who at this stage are booing and chucking anything to hand in her general direction). Her eyes narrow. It’s all starting to feel very Mary Poppins and I’m gritting my teeth with the fear that Monáe will reach for her carpet-bag and umbrella and take to the skies. The parrot handle will whine about how ungrateful we all are and she will defend us, clear her throat and make out there is some grit in her eye. Absorbed in this alter reality I suddenly realise the impudent one has surrendered under the weight of all the heckling. A frenzy of stage and spectator breaks out! Monáe mounts a band mate who conveys her into the thick of the crowd to be raised up on our hands. A Belgian girl who had been timidly peeking at me earlier screams directly into my face: “GO TO HER!”, and flings me with Herculean strength in Janelle Monáe’s direction.

Barriers down on every front.

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Play It Again, Sam, 1972

In today’s Observer interview Woody Allen speaks about how meeting Diane Keaton transformed how he thought about writing women and how that came to affect his filmmaking:

“They were cardboard figures before her, and I made no effort to change it, but after I met Keaton I could write women, and only write women, that was all that interested me.”

They met in 1969 in the auditions for the stage version of Play It Again, Sam and Keaton modestly attributes her winning of the part to the fact that she didn’t exceed Allen’s 5 foot 7 inches stature. The film version of two years later suggests there was a bit more to it. Keaton’s captivating charm is instantly apparent. The first of Allen’s output to consistently engage until the credits roll, is due in large part to the lightness of her touch throughout.

The angular tailoring and 1970s fanged shirt collars of her wardrobe are striking; both Keaton and costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone had preceded the film with The Godfather, also released in 1972.

Image via enfanterribles

Social incompetence is the familiar stomping ground for Allen’s comedy in Play It Again, Sam. In the wake of marital breakdown he is an eager yet severely inept dater and Keaton’s Linda is the wife of his best friend who warms to him in spite of his shortcomings. In fact they bond over their shared neurotic preoccupations, discussing how best to wash down their prescribed medication.

“Have you ever had Librium and tomato juice?”                                                                 –“No, I haven’t personally but another neurotic tells me they’re unbelievable”

The intimately weaved social landscape and overlapping romantic entanglements is a theme to recur many times. Tony Roberts plays the best friend, a role that he will revive in Annie Hall amongst other Allen collaborations.

The film’s premise is that unlucky-in-love Allan (a thin disguise) is visited by a Humphrey Bogart caricature to tutor him in the ways of Bogie-styled romanticism. The absurdity of idealised manliness is centre-stage; at one juncture Allan complains that the lines between violent assault and the generally admired masculinity that dominates are too blurry for him to distinguish. Woody Allen’s screwball inclination is indulged through these exchanges with Bogart, his rebuttals have the feel of a stand-up routine.

The film shoot was moved to San Francisco when Allen’s hand was forced by a film industry strike in New York 1971. Nonetheless we can see an emphasis on the cultural minutiae, the tools with which the central character arms himself against the outside world. Allan self-consciously clutters his apartment with New Yorker magazines and worries over whether to opt for Oscar Petersen or Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5 from his record booth as he prepares for a date.

At the film’s opening Allan’s wife introduces him as “one of life’s great watchers”, readying the audience for the postmodern romp before them. This justification for the breakdown of their marriage is in fact celebrated by the final scene as Allan  sacrifices his romance with Linda in preference of loyalty to his friend, a trait, incidentally that is nowhere to be seen in his later films. Borrowings from the film abound in When Harry Met Sally of 1989: Casablanca is of course integral to both films’ understanding of romantic love and their leading man deals with the rejection of divorce. Both even boast references to “days-of-the-week underpants”. The closing sequence emphasises Allen’s ascendence to this next stage in his development as a filmmaker, signalled in this knowing exchange between Bogart and the central character:

Bogart: “That was great. You’ve really developed yourself a little style.”

Allan: “I do have a certain amount of style, don’t I”.

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Bananas, 1971

The opening scene of Bananas perseveres with the playfulness with form seen previously in the mockumentary Take the Money and Run. It opens with a news report on the military coup of fictional Latin American country San Marcos as it actually plays out. Well-known sports commentator Howard Cosell is the foreign correspondent and improvises his part in his day-job lingo. Tongue firmly in cheek, the sense of history is conveyed by likening the banana republic’s transfer of power to the 1964 first encounter of Clay and Liston. In 1971, five years before Sidney Lumet’s seminal Network, the blood-thirsty news hawking hints at the burgeoning appetite for sensationalised news. The beast was in its mere infancy at that stage of course; it seems rather quaint today when compared with the material Charlie Brooker’s lampooning Newswipe has at its disposal.

The third and final collaboration with Allen’s long-time friend Mickey Rose, Bananas has much of the absurdist comedy of their previous outings. Fielding Mellish is as impressionable and hapless as Take the Money and Run’s Virgil Starkwell. Mellish works testing ludicrous products (among them, the office-gym exec-ucizor) and is just as dogged in his pursuit of the girl. The striking point of difference between the two is the suggestion of the particularly New York Woody Allen stylisation to come. The film’s first half setting is palpable in the wistful piano tinkling of the Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack to daydreamy dates in the city. Yet a cameo from a young Sylvester Stallone as a Subway thug shows a grittier 1970s New York than the middle-class philosophising of the Annie Hall movie queue.


The physical comedy is at its most successful when reigned in and domesticated. Mellish tackling a slippery block of frozen spinach early on in Bananas is one that will be reprised with the lobster tyranny of Annie Hall. The interest in San Marcos begins with the door-to-door petitioning of campaigner Nancy, played by Louise Lasser (again, not unlike Carol Kane’s Allison of Annie Hall).  At this stage Allen plays the philistine, untaught in worthy causes and intellectual values, a feature that will be reversed as this nascent “Woody Allen” character is fleshed out. Similarly, the stock female character is starting to become more nuanced. Nonetheless the smutty hangover from the sixties, glorying in Playboy-ish magazines and the sheer delight of showing a bare breast feels very creaky and Carry On-like.

The second half, filmed in Lima and Puerto Rico, returns to the haphazard, form-less earlier comedies and plot undoubtedly takes a back-seat. The young Woody Allen protagonist is sparky and mischievous, and the slapstick can be refreshing (Lyndon B. Johnson in disguise as an African American woman, in particular). It is hard not to yearn for the seamless, solid plot to come. Nonetheless, it remains a spirited outing at a stage when Allen was experimenting and finding his groove.

An interview in promotion of the film indicates a reluctance to take himself too seriously:

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Belfast’s Punk Past

Back in the summer of 2009 I sat down with Petesy Burns, one of the masterminds behind Giros. A hang-out for punks that was at the centre of Belfast’s D.I.Y. music scene, it had recently been memorialised in the ANTI exhibition at the Waterfront, part of that year’s Trans Festival.  Notes From The Underground Originally published in the U Mag, June 2009.

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The Front Page Bar: If Walls Could Talk…

Wander in by day and the Front Page Bar will seem like another world entirely from modern Belfast. A static, dusty haze streams in from the afternoon sun outside. Flat-capped punters intermittently duck into the Ladbrokes bookies next door, returning to follow their fortunes bolstered by a pint in hand. A charismatic little dog rebuffs his owner’s appeals for some trick or other, preferring to devote himself to the ribboning of a beer mat. Many would beat a hasty retreat to the sanitised high street or the self-consciously trendy Cathedral Quarter, oblivious to the time capsule they have unearthed.

The Front Page sits on the junction of Donegall Street and Union Street, built in 1872 at the zenith of Belfast’s industrial powers. Its earliest days saw James King, the veterinary’s “Horse Bazaar” and Miss Alderdice’s milliners among its residents, with Dr. Barter’s Turkish Baths next-door until the outbreak of the second world war. Donegall Street became acquainted with a bigotry distinct to the province’s home-grown brand as Jim-Crow segregated troops served the city’s inhabitants during the Belfast Blitz from the warehouses of Marsh’s biscuit factory (vacant, yet still intact today). With Saint Patrick’s Church and Saint Anne’s Cathedral shepherding either end of the street, the nineteenth-century Belfast skyline of Victorian chimneys and church spires prevails.

The street is a mosaic of old and new. The headquarters of The Irish News and The Belfast Telegraph remain from the old newspaper district, the erstwhile home of all major Belfast publications. This history is reflected in the bar’s name, although the still of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and the French original movie promo decorating the upstairs bar hint at the influence of Billy Wilder’s 1974 The Front Page remake. As the business of print media fizzles, the area is galvanised by the insurgency of the city’s Gay Village, heralded by the majestic statue of Lenin projecting from the Kremlin night club adjacent to the bar.

In the early 1970s, the tenure of the Mc Elhatton family began, valiantly manning the bar in severely hostile conditions. A curfew culture meant bars within the city limits were shut by seven o’clock. The former proprietor had bowed out, his nerves shattered by the wolves at the door. The bar’s patrons were among the Shankill Butchers’s victims, preyed upon by the trademark black taxis to be brutally murdered on loyalist turf.

In 1986, John Mc Elhatton Jr. returned from London and the second century of the building’s existence. The site of the Belfast Music Society until the 1960s, music is etched in its genetic code and John was keen to revive these latent traditions. In 1982, it was a gutsy move given the the cultural vacuum that had descended upon the city.  He chanced upon the fixtures being junked in the renovation of the Camden Stores Bar in London. The wooden stillions, carved wooden frame and beveled mirrors are features that incorporate the past as he looked to the future.

Today, Frank Mead, professional sax player, and his fiancée Elaine are hashing out the plans for their wedding party. The understated style and substance has worked in the Front Page’s favour, and the Londoners anticipate a raucous night of dancing and music with trademark Irish abandon. The mentioning of past notable performances by Shane MacGowan and Mary Coughlan elicits Frank’s disclosure – “Oh yeah, I played with Mary” – and the union feels complete.

It’s a popular spot to mark the milestones of life and its passing; the remains of Christening party decorations hang from a corner while someone arranges their father’s funeral gathering. This particular event has attracted the attention of a certain Front Page regular. Octogenarian Mr McCann – suited, booted and with hair carefully oiled – is keeping his fastidiously coiffed head down today. He is noticeably wary after ruffling feathers a few days previously with a misplaced quip – “So I can rip up this Mass card then” – observing the man had not yet died. Heralded by John Mc Elhatton as typical of the bar’s enduring clientele, the promise of a pint soon smoothes away the bristles and Mr McCann comes to life. He relishes holding court. A passing salesperson’s attempt to join in the chatter is rebuffed as he recounts his long-nurtured tales of hijinks, “Sure it’d be long before your time”. His chest is puffed and a roguish grin is on his lips. I’m handed a framed testament of his finest hour, retrieved from its pride of place behind the counter. It is a police fine administered to the Lurgan man for public drunkenness at Ballymena train station. Fittingly, a photograph of Mr McCann sipping at a pint sits alongside, a bit like a university diploma.

The barman calls for a bit of hush and gestures towards the TV in the corner of the bar. By some artful manoeuvre Alex Attwood, Minister for Social Development, has momentarily interrupted the racing. He announces a regeneration scheme to revitalise North Belfast, an area neglected by the moneyed classes that flock to the nearby Victoria Square shopping complex. The modest £160,000 involved – funding a public square and the face-lift of an individual derelict site – signals a commitment to restoring the neighbourhood. John Mc Elhatton is encouraged and has the air of a man quietly confident about the future. Where others would dismantle in the name of modernising, he would preserve. In 1990 he salvaged the bricks from a demolished late Georgian building on the other side of the street and they now prop up his books.  With the University of Ulster campus just around the corner, he sees the untapped potential in his midst. A willingness to adapt has been pivotal to a bar that appeals to both the sedate seasoned drinker and more spirited punks, in for a bit of a wreck-about by night. Let’s hope that an elusive course can be navigated between the generic high-street and the idiosyncratic charisma that seeps from the Front Page’s walls, a sum of its disparate parts. Not least for the sake of the singular joy in whiling away an afternoon in the company of such venerable Belfast specimens.

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