Northern Ireland Earth 2

eating the violin 40per
“Relativity theory in 1905 announced the dissolution of uniform Newtonian space ,as an illusion or fiction, however useful. Einstein pronounced the doom of continuous or rational space and the way was made clear for Picasso, the Marx Brothers and “MAD” magazine”….Marshall McLuthan, Understanding Media
Ian Paisley, then a fundamentalist , fiery Old Testament preacher with a very right wing line in politics and now a “Lord” in the House of Lords (since deceased), at a time long ago in the 1960s and 1970s, used to gig regularly at the Ulster Hall in Belfast.,. He drew large crowds of fans who hung onto every word in loving , rapt attention.ireland71_mm zepp review

Us teenagers weren’t much interested in any of that though.We had other reasons for going to the Ulster Hall. Our “cup of meat”, as Bob Dylan would say on the legendary bootleg “Basement Tapes”, was bands from the 1960s british blues boom as it was called, such as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers which had spawned Eric Clapton and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac [before they went all girly with “Rumours” in the mid-1970s.] These guys were our heroes. At eighteen, in 1970 , I had already missed the Beatles , Bob Dylan and Cream when they appeared in the city a couple of years earlier in the decade.
For any of us “country boys” living forty miles from Belfast it was a matter of logistics. A train had to be caught on time after the concert and then a willing older brother or parent had to pick us up for the last late night connection towards home. Mr Beeching’s policy on trains had put paid to that last train connection in the 1950s and left us children in my hometown, a disused train station as a childhood playground., No phone in your pocket then. No phone in most homes either. A callbox on a distant corner was about all there was.. My parents had no car, in any case, so I had to be independent and ” row my own boat”…..That was then….
Now , of course ,by 1971, a lot of us were living in Belfast. We’d already accepted the “normality” of working or student- life against the background of an ongoing warzone.We had all segued unwittingly into a process that had begun in 1968 with the Civil Rights marches and was gathering daily, violent momentum around us. The memorable interruptions to the mundanity of violence and violent utterings, included man landing on the moon in 1969 and the great hippy gathering at Woodstock within months of each other. The timing of these events is, in retrospect, quite astonishing. In some respects it really did seem like a brave new world but not in Northern Ireland .Northern Ireland was now in the news virtually every night, just like the Vietnam war and for all the wrong reasons.I think a lot of people actually got addicted to their daily fix of news It made them feel more important on the world stage.It reminded the rest of the world that we actually existed.. We didn’t know , of course that our little “war” like Vietnam, would have a similar longevity and run on for the next thirty odd years…half a lifetime , for some of us, when you think of it.
So initially it was commuting to work in the Civil Service. The norm was : getting up early for the early bus or shared car, picking up the late- slumbering, alarm clock dodgers and drowsily making our way down the M1 to Belfast and then back again in the evening for home by seven, some twelve hours later. The office I worked in had the glass windows taped with crosses of thick sellotape to prevent them shrapnelling across the room should a bomb explode nearby. I don’t think it would have helped, in retrospect. We thought little about the unusual situation we’d found ourselves in. Life went on ,as I’m sure it did during the world war thirty years before.Some of my friends were students or worked in the city and I soon moved away from home too, to share a small old terraced house on the Lisburn Road. The place smelled of old stale cabbage .The walls crumbled in places where damp fought a war of attrition. There was no bathroom, just a gas-heated water  geyser in the kitchen, so we showered over at Queen’s University. The toilet was in the yard which was a new thing for me .We actually had indoor bathrooms/ toilets at home, unlike many in the population.Outdoor toilets are very cold in the winter! We learned to cook and tried to poison each other with our first, rude culinary attempts. One particular first curry I made has gained legendary status and may well still have a life of its own in some abandoned corner of Belfast.
There was a little tape recorder in the corner that pumped out Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and music by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Incredible String Band, Tom Rush and the Doors. Both Hendrix and Jim Morrison had just died the year before[ Morrison, like Brian Jones, a few years before him, both gone on my birthday in separate July’s]. The Beatles had just announced their demise in that past year. All of this was of, as great , if not greater importance to us all, than anything that was going on in what we loosely called “politics” in Northern Ireland. These musicians were our secret avatars. We treated most of the politics as a dark flippant joke.My father used to say “He’s as stupid as a policeman” when referring to something he regarded as imbecilic or unworthy. There were times when I had to agree with him, wholeheartedly.
I was more interested in art , literature,music and the underground press of ” International Times” and “Oz” magazine than I was about Northern Ireland politics .I was a new kind of beast, a 1960s teenager!


In the autumn of 1971, I trained out to Bangor one Friday afternoon after work, to pick up a friend who was temporaily going insane working in a bank there, before he became a teacher, and we set off on a great adventure to see the Who and the Faces at the Oval cricket ground in London.A great day and night journey in those pre- Easyjet days, entailing getting the overnight ferry to Liverpool, sleeping in our sleeping bags between the seats, disembarking and then hitchhiking in leapfrog fashion from one service- station to another betweenLiverpool and London to catch the tail- end of the Swinging Sixties on the London streets. The weekend was spent mostly on the floor of a friend’s cramped one -room flat for which he paid a whopping £13.00 per week. For most of us , the “sixties” began around 1965 and tailed off about the time of punk rock and the death of Elvis in 1977. London was quite some contrast to life on the streets of Belfast. As the world leaders in fashion then, young  people on the streets were dressing like many-coloured birds. Flocks of these exotic creatures scattered and skittered across the footpaths of the city.  We could have been on another planet and in some respects we really were.belfast71-tkt ZEPPELIN

We were experiencing the first nudges of the counter-culture in those years while already in a war- zone of sorts  at home. We were already dipping into tentative early experiments with the nether- zone of powerful psychedelics . We had by this time already opened  Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” and were already well -primed for astral flight.The world was being viewed from an entirely novel perspective now. I’d read about it ; I’d seen the results of it  in the outrageous art and heard  the strange ,warped ,timeless sounds of  it in the music of the times but there was no real way of properly describing any of it to anyone outside of that milieu, who hadn’t experienced this indescribable state of being.Anyone who’d been “there” in Dimension X was a “head” and “knew” exactly what you meant.Some fifty years ago, simply put,  the “straights” didn’t know what the “freeks” were talking about at all.We were in  a sort of  secret club like Psychedelic Freemasons.  .By the time Led Zeppelin arrived at the Ulster Hall in Belfast to begin their latest tour and play “Stairway to Heaven” live for the first time on the planet, we were ready. To this day I cannot remember if the bassist / organist John Paul Jones ,actually played that huge Ulster Hall pipe organ or if I imagined it in a fevered psychedelic dream. I believe he did but I’m open to correction. We were watching from above the stage, to one side, and I struggled to keep my mate’s feet on the ground while Jimmy Page did astounding visual “head-pranks” with his strobing violin bow. Aww… we were all damaged in some way by the troubles!
Rory Gallagher was another musician who stole the Ulster Hall from Mr.Paisley and his minions .He supported the hippy tribes throughout the Troubles when other bands feared to tread. I remember taking a young blonde-haired lady with bone-structure like Joni Mitchell to one of his gigs.Unfortunately she had to catch a train back to Bangor, Newtonabbey or some such before the end of the show. Rory always gave  his all in an uncompromising concert workout of blues rock. That usually meant that his shows ran over the limit and trains and buses still had to be caught. That romance didn’t go far!
Ringo Starr, when asked an inane journalistic question , answered that they were neither mods nor rockers…they were mockers. Loyalists or Nationalists ? We called ourselves headz or freeks. The Doors sang. “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers”…….” number” was a slang term , as was “doobie”[ as in The Doobie Brothers] for a marijuana joint. We were going to fight the militaristic establishment, not with violence, but with humour ,satire and argument. David Crosby of the Byrds and then Crosby, Stills and Nash sang…. “I almost cut my hair, but I didn’t…… ’cause I wanted to let my freak flag fly”. The longhairs felt themselves  a whole new universal tribe unfettered by territorial boundaries .As Steve Miller sang ….” I’m a doper, a smoker ,a midnight toker, I don’t want to hurt no-one”.
Unlike Mr President, Bill Clinton, I’ll admit to inhaling with great gusto and alacrity for at least fourteen years, always laughing in the face of the mundane.
The following Spring, still nineteen, I took a flight to Leeds after work; something of a novelty then, and possibly my second time on an aeroplane .Late one Tuesday evening I took a bus from behind the most -bombed hotel in Europe, “the Europa” and headed for the airport. In Leeds, I had arranged  a room in digs for a night and slept in a small terraced house where the landlady ran a little B&B operation.The next day I made my way to the  building housing the art and music college in Vernon street and blagged a place in the art department there.
“From the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a reappraisal of art education in Britain, largely based on ideas developed at Leeds, where a large team of practising artists set up the Basic Design Course. Students were now encouraged to adopt a scientific approach, enabling them to develop a capacity for constructive criticism and understanding.”
The same  Jacob Kramer College of Art that Damien Hirst,{ the enfant terrible, conceptual creator of the”The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living ” featuring a tiger shark suspended in a glass case}  was to attend some years later. Damien didn’t get into the Jacob Kramer College of Art  on his first attempt but was successful on the second time around and went on to become one of the most celebrated  conceptual artists in the world…..certainly one of the richest.

Henry Moore , the sculptor had also passed through and in fact a future flatmate’s mother  had previously  acted as  a model for the great master.Yan always said that her hands adorned some building that Moore had been commissioned to enhance.

Most of my portfolio had been drawn and painted on buff- coloured manilla folders, courtesy of  my office in the Ministry of Agriculture, Belfast. I told the three- man panel that I had to get back on that plane within a few hours and do a similar interview in Belfast’s art college where I didn’t want to go, but it was a necessary requisite in getting a grant from my local authority.I needed an acceptance from them and a refusal from Belfast. They put their heads together, conferring, while I waited,and gave me a place there and then….. I laughed with relief and with one mighty bound, I was free!!![ as they used to say in the cliff-hanger cinema serials].jacob kramer college of art leeds 1

You can only take so much and I was ready for a change from Belfast’s dreary paranoia. I wanted to get to the place where all the popular culture of the 1960s had its origins.
Art College!!! :The art colleges in those years were the hot- bed and spawning ground for all the great bands, [ virtually every rock group worth a damn had it’s genesis within their walls, The Beatles, the Who, The Rolling Stones, the Kinks,John Lennon, Keith Richard, Ray Davies, Pete Townsend to name just four creators in four different bands who had revolutionised how we listened to popular music],fashion designers like Mary Quant, painters and film-makers who had cut a swathe through the greyness of post-war life in Britain and Ireland with new concepts and visionary thinking. From here new ideas were spinning feverishly into the world and changing the way people thought and looked.Picasso ‘s death intruded into this reverie in that first year’s studies, in April 1973 and Paul McCartney later wrote a song for him. The collossus of twentieth century art was dead but his legacy included the anti- war “Guernica”, as great a footprint as those left by astronauts on that first moon landing.golly 1

The art colleges presented a whole raft of alternative ways of looking at the world. There were painters, etchers, sculptors and a guy who could carve chess pieces out of bone . One of my fellow students was Ian Rogers , brother of the Free/ Bad Company rock singer Paul Rogers.Here was where I discovered hard Jazz, world music , Captain Beefheart’s stellar blues and an upcoming art school band by the name of Roxy Music.


By this time we’d already been exposed to Shakespeare, Milton, Thomas Hardy , Hemingway and the rest ,at school. I’d read through everything I could find of Steinbeck and Orwell.  By then, Timothy Leary’s “Politics of Ecstasy” was already well- cooked, on that mental  back-burner; As was “the Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell” by Aldous Huxley. Now the currency was Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” and” Desolation Angels” with sideswipes into De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater” and the jungles of Carlos Castaneda’s mind of shamanism. His, “The Teachings of Don Juan” and the following books in that series were on everyone’s reading list along with Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” and the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. I’d long since lapped up Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and assorted  Beats. Films we watched included Tod Browning’s, once- banned, “Freaks”, Buster Keaton’s “the General”, Sternberg’s “the Blue Angel” and “L’Age D’Or” the 1930s film by Luis Bunuel.


There were people like myself into  both fine art painting and also comics,the new underground hippy counter-culture of  underground comix by the like of Robert Crumb, the poster art of Rick Griffin, the Chinese Book of changes, the ” I-Ching”, the Tarot, Zen, but also those in thrall to the geodesic structures of Buckminster Fuller and his new concepts of building.


Amid all of this I became aware of the “Whole Earth Catalog” [SIC] which was really the forerunner to the World Wide Web of the Internet and destined to be a huge influence on the world to come.Stewart Brand published this large , thick, tabloid-sized, floppy paperback and it became the hippy bible of creative , novel lifestyles. It covered everything from tools and machinery to how to go about keeping bees. Even then , over forty years ago ,some of us were becoming aware of the importance of this little insect to the planet’s sustainable future. The catalog[sic] was on the same page as Greenpeace. It listed contacts and suppliers of virtually everything needed for survival outside the establishment culture . In the coming years much of this degenerated into pie-in-the-sky idealism when confronted with the harsh realities of sustaining a back to nature , “the Good Life”, as the decade ran on, but many novel ideas
Steve Jobs of Apple took many of his cues from this approach :
“Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalog to Internet search engine Google in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” During the commencement speech, Jobs also quoted the farewell message placed on the back cover of the 1974 edition of the catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Kevin Kelly made a similar comparison in 2008:
“For this new countercultural movement, information was a precious commodity. In the ’60s, there was no Internet; no 500 cable channels. [… The Whole Earth Catalog[sic] was a great example of user-generated content, without advertising, before the Internet. Basically, Brand invented the blogosphere long before there was any such thing as a blog.  No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included.  This I am sure about: it is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.”
As recently as 2013, I was in Belfast with my wife , daughter and son-in-law and as we went into the Apple shop on a mission  to buy some esoteric piece of Apple hardware it all came full -circle. I was reminded of much of what had evolved socially in the intervening forty -odd years since art college, when I watched youngsters as young as seven embracing, unknowingly, the various Ipads on display , while  connecting unconsciously to the rest of the planet. Things were being bought and information exchanged  via satellite links high in the sky with  no physical coin  exchanging hands. Information had possessed the world at last. My wife nodded humorously as I raised my knowing eyebrows  while these childrens’ nimble fingers traversed the keys  so effortlessly.Within a few scant years the whole concept of world communication had been greedily embraced ,but much of the idealism that spawned it had been long- forgotten.
I also thought how very important music was to the cohesion of those long ago tribal “headz”and how this new world order had mainly trivialised and forgotten it’s  idealism and ultimate relevance. Idealistic hippies…Hah!… It started with the Monterey pop festival and Woodstock and probably reached it’s apogee with Bob Geldof’s” Live Aid” global concert to feed the world.
Meanwhile, as if in contrast….. back to the future….Belfast …..
Not so far away from the Apple shop there was a demonstration going on in the streets. Other less esoterically -educated modern young people of the twenty first century were also  spending their free time and stretching their imaginations in a slightly different way, worrying about how many times they’d be allowed to fly a flag during the coming year and what that might mean to their mental-well-being and “culture”.Something obviously had gone wrong on Earth 2. Many lessons were yet to be  assimilated.
I had to shake my head in wonder ….”Where do we start with their education?” Back to those concerts in the Ulster Hall?

“Doobie…doobie …doo…” ….Frank Sinatra “Strangers in the Night”..


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