Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Have A Very Cool Yule - Christmas Songs That Won't Embarrass You (And You Might Love)

It's Christmaaaas! As The Man Once Sang.......

The Noddster

And if you're one of those people who thinks; "If I have to listen to that basterin' Mariah Carey song one more time, I'll strangle every last person in this Tescos" - you might appreciate some of these Christmas songs - that range from the indie-tastic to the just lovely. It's a very personal selection, but you might find a few you haven't heard before and appreciate. 

So, in no particular order, My Cool Crimbo Choons Selection includes.

* 17 - Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis - Tom Waits 

Could not leave this one out - Tom Waits has the bookend for Fairytale of New York - slow, mellow, dark, heartfelt. 

*16 The Wexford Carol - Alison Krauss + YoYo Ma 

Just....gorgeous - an old Irish carol - brilliantly done by Alison Krauss and YoYo Ma - gives "all the feels" as The Kids are fond of saying.

* 15 Bob Dylan - Must Be Santa

Croakin' Bob goes kinda Polka/Zydeco - great rollicking song that will put a smile on your face.

* 14 Gaudete - Steeleye Span 

Very haunting. This sacred carol is believed to have been written in the 16th Century and Gaudete is ecclesiastical Latin, meaing "rejoice". English folkies Steeleye Span had a top 20 hit with this in 1973 - a very strange song to hear in amidst the glam-rock. This acapella version is from Steeleye's 30th anniversary reunion concert.   

* 13 Solstice Bells - Jethro Tull 

Great bit of '70s Proggified Christmas tunage from Jethro Tull.

* 12 Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight No More) - The Ramones 

Lovely blast of Christmas cheer from the lads. 

* 11 - Father Christmas - The Kinks 

"When I was small I believed in Santa Claus - Though I knew it was my dad.."

Another rocker of a Christmas song - great for Parties - a classic from the Kinks. 

* 10 - Frosty The Snowman - The Cocteau Twins 

'80s Indie heroes The Cocteau Twins did a jangly version of this classic back in the '80s - with a b-side version of Winter Wonderland. Vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie came up with a slightly woozy but very sincere take on this classic. 

* 9 Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses 

Another '80s indie-classic - from early '80s Akron, Ohio New Wavers The Waitresses (best known for I Know What Boys Like) - any Christmas song that starts with "Bah Humbug" has got the right Christmas Spirit - but the lyrics capture a kind of love-hate relationship with the festive season - and the brass bits are gorgeous. One of my all-time faves, 

* 8 A Christmas Duel - The Hives And Cyndi Lauper 

Again - a great opening line to this sort of indie-rock take on the spirit (at least) of Fairy Tale of New York; "I got no gifts this year - and I slept with your sister". 

What follows is a rowdy, very Phil Spector/Motown Christmas song - lovely stuff. A real Midnight In The Pub Christmas Eve sing-along. 

* 7 Back Door Santa - Clarence Carter

He's a bluesy, back door Santa - he makes his runs about the break of day - Ho, Ho, Ho. Smutty Santa - he don't come but once a year. One for the office party

* 6 Santa Claus Is Ska-ing To Town - The Granville Williams Orchestra

A very rock-steady take on the old fave, with Granville Williams doing the honours - check out the great Trojan Christmas Box-Set for a whole load of Ska/Reggae etc Christmas Songs. Including Yellow Man's Santa Claus Never Comes To The Ghetto and Johnny Clarke's great version of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. 

* 5 Troika - from Lieutenant Kiije - Prokofiev 

This VERY Christmassy song was actually written by Prokofiev for a 1934 Soviet Propaganda movie  about a soldier - go figure. I love it. 

* 4 - I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Lake 

A lovely Christmas song from '70s Progster Greg Lake - this is a song with a message, but pretty subtle. It was also once chosen by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his fave Christmas Song, thanks to what he thought was its very Christian Message. And he should know, in fairness. 

* 3 The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl - Fairytale of New York 

C'mon! I'm hardly going to leave it out?! It's just about perfect. 

* 2 Christmas In Hollis - Run DMC 

This is just a bit of a nostalgia trip - remember hearing this a LOT the year it came out and Run DMC were very, very cool. 

* 1 2,000 Miles - The Pretenders 

If Santa put a gun to my head - this would be the one Christmas song I would choose as my favourite, a beautiful pop Christmas Carol, dedicated to (and about) a band-mate who had died way to young. It's got everything about Christmas, family, yearning, nostalgia, the bitter-sweet thing. It's just perfect. 

* Hey! Thanks for Reading. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

No Gods, No Masters - The Remarkable Margaret Sanger

* If you follow US politics, you might have heard of Planned Parenthood – the nationwide women’s health agency that is now under huge attack by the Republican Party, militant pro-life activists, Fox News, the Christian Right and assorted other wingnuts.
What you may not know is that Planned Parenthood can trace it’s lineage back to a remarkable Irish-American woman, a suffragette and early advocate for women’s health rights and family planning.
She was the redoubtable Margaret Sanger, the daughter of two Irish emigrants. Her father Michael Hennessey Higgins, left Ireland as a child, served as a drummer-boy in the Union Army fighting the Civil War at 15 and grew up to be a radical free-thinker, socialist and “Walk Away” Catholic.
She was born Margaret Hennessy Higgins. And 99 years ago, on October 25th, 1916, she was arrested for operating a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York (America’s first). Convicted and sent to jail for a month, she was totally unrepentant and went on to devote the rest of her life to women’s health. 
Today - at least two candidates for the US Presidency have added their names to a letter - signed by 25 Republican Party law-makers - calling for a bust of this great woman to be removed from America's National Portrait Gallery's "Struggle for Justice" exhibit. 
They label her a racist and a "baby murderer". But you could argue that what they really hate about Margaret Sanger is that she stood up against ignorance and religious dogma, to fight for the rights of poor women. And helped found what would go on to be Planned Parenthood. 
Sanger's legacy has come under attack from the extremists who want to deny women birth control and access to affordable health care today.

For her supporters, those who want to destroy her name and erase her legacy today are the direct descendants of those politicians and law-makers who put Margaret in prison in 1916, to silence her, to intimidate her, to punish her for daring to stand up for the health rights of ordinary women.

The woman born Margaret Hennessey Higgins refused to be silenced back then, those who honour her work and her life can show the same strength today. 
* Born in 1879 in New York, Margaret was one of 11 surviving children to her Irish catholic parents (both had fled to North America as children during the Great Famine). Her mother underwent 22 pregnancies and died (a devout catholic) aged 49. 
Sanger's Father - Irish-born Michael Hennessey Higgins
Her father Michael was a remarkable man, a boy-soldier with the Union Army in the Civil War, he had tried to become a doctor before having to settle for being a stone-mason (his speciality was angels for fancy tombs). Michael Hennessey rejected the Catholic Church, became a radical, a free-thinker and encouraged his children, including Margaret, to think for themselves, work for social justice and reject dogma and ignorance.
Margaret became a visiting Nurse, working with some of the poorest families on the Lower East Side in New York, in 1911. She also threw herself into radical politics, campaigning for social justice, for voting rights for women and for access to health care. 
It was whilst working amongst the poor that she came across cases of women who were facing severe health problems due to multiple births, and also women who died because of back-street abortions. 
Margaret had already, in 1914, launched a regular newsletter, titled That Women Rebel - No Gods, No Masters - promoting birth control and women's rights.
She wanted to provide information for women - but also to provoke a challenge to the federal anti-obscenity law that banned any promotion or mention of contraception. 
In her work day life as a nurse, it was after one particularly harrowing case in 1915 that she resolved to import contraceptives from France and distribute them through the first family planning clinic in the US. She set it up in 1916 and was arrested after a month. A book she published on the issue of family planning was also banned and led to another prosecution. 
Sanger had witnessed a young women she knew personally die from the affects of an attempted self-induced abortion. 
Later on, she wrote of that night; "I threw my nursing bag in the corner and announced ... that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for working women in America to have the knowledge to control birth".
A few years earlier, she had written a series of extremely frank and informative sex columns for a popular left-wing magazine, titled "What Every Woman Should Know". 
Sanger (she had married and had kids herself several years earlier) refused to be silenced, refused to be barred from what she saw as her life's work. 
She did dabble in the fashionable (at the time) theories of population control and the quack science of Eugenics, the belief (then very widespread in intellectual and scientific circles) that you could "breed" superior human beings through selection based on race, IQ, physical characteristics etc. This is the stick that is now being used to attack her legacy, the implication being that Sanger wanted mass sterilisation and the elimination of "inferior" races.

Eugenics - viewed from a modern perspective - is gruesome, quack science. It was widely championed at the time by scientists, politicians, intellectuals (GB Shaw was a big proponent) and even religious leaders such as the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Irishman Patrick J Hayes, who hosted an international conference on Eugenics in NY in 1921. But it was used by Hitler and the Nazis to justify the mass sterilisation or euthanasia of people they considered sub-humans,

Everything that we know about Margaret Sanger - her humanity, her devotion to the health and well-being of all women, her promotion of science and knowledge, her rejection of crushing dogma and the many hypocrisies and shibboleths which were designed to keep women ignorant and powerless, tell us her belief in Eugenics was, at worst, as mistaken and misguided with her as it was with the many other prominent figures who briefly embraced its dubious promise.  
Sanger lived a very long life, worked with trade unions, on worker's rights, on social justice, on health provision for the poor and for the rights of women. 
She was instrumental in changing laws, in changing attitudes and changing the lives of millions of women for the better, whether that was in getting the right to vote or opening the way towards affordable, available contraception. 
Her life was far, far too long and eventful to go into here, but there is much to read online. 
Margaret Sanger was by any measure a remarkable woman. If anybody deserves to be remembered in their country's National Portrait Gallery, especially in a section titled "The Struggle For Justice", it is her.
**** Hey - Thanks For Reading****  

Friday, 25 September 2015

Wings Over Monasterevin! The Nazi Paratrooper Who Landed in Co Kildare

* Another strange story - this about the German paratroop legend/Nazi War Criminal who rescued Mussolini, attempted to assassinate Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, and ended up farming cattle in Co Kildare. 

Yes, Otto Skorzeny was some man for one man. An insanely daring soldier and leader of men, an ardent Nazi and the man who (temporarily) saved Benito Mussolini from the retribution of the Italian nation. 

He masterminded and personally carried out one of the most spectacular commando missions of the Second World War. But Otto Skorzeny was not a hero. He was a fascist, a killer, an SS officer, mercenary for military dictators and - by any measure - thoroughly evil.

He was also - for a while - Ireland's least likely beef farmer. 

Wartime Snap of Skorzeny - Note the Duelling Scars

* The Gothic Hunting lodge, Martinstown House, is today a luxury B&B set in the classic horse racing country of the Curragh of Kildare. In the 1960s is was home to Standartenfuhrer Otto Skorzeny of the Waffen SS, Hitler's favourite paratrooper. 

How the man who was born in Vienna in 1907 and helped set up the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931 ended up farming cattle in the Irish midlands is something of a complicated story. 

But then Colonel Skorzeny was a complicated man. An unapologetic Nazi to the end, he combined farming in Ireland with running an international mercenary agency - serving, amongst others, the apartheid regime in South Africa - and stood by his love for der Führer right to the end. 

He was the man who was (according to Soviet intelligence) chosen to carry out Operation Long Jump - the German plan to assassinate the Big Three (Churchill, Stalin & Roosevelt) while they were together at the Tehran Coference in 1943. He was also the man who held the military HQ in Berlin from rebel officers after the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 came close to succeeding.
"Der Furher Was A Wunnerful Dancer!"

But it was the daring and successful Operation Oak - the ridiculously dangerous paratroop mission to rescue deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in September 1943, that made Skorzeny internationally famous. 

The SS officer had been shot down - twice - on two previous missions to locate and rescue Mussolini. The first time, he was the only survivor, the second, his plane was shot down by Allied fighters and crash-landed in the sea. Skorzeny and his crew were miraculously rescued by a passing Italian warship.

In the end - Skorzeny led the paratroopers who landed a plane on a tiny mountaintop fortress at Gran Sasso, grabbed Il Duce and flew him off to run a puppet fascist state in Northern Italy, until the Italian partisans finally caught up with him.

At 6ft 4in and 18 stone, he was known to his men as "Scarface", thanks to a prominent duelling scar picked up in his youth. 

After the war, he was captured by the Allies and was due to stand trial at Dachau (site of the concentration camp) but escaped in 1948. 
Skorzeny With Mussolini Moments After He Was Rescued

He fled using the underground railway for ex-Nazis (and this is where his story gets very Frederick Forsysth) that was (allegedly) set up with the help of high-ranking Vatican officials and ended up in Argentina or Brazil. Later on, Skorzeny would help run the ODESSA network - helping to find gainful work for former SS soldiers with the fascist governments of Spain and several Central American and Middle Eastern Countries.

In Argentina, he became a bodyguard for Eva Perón, with whom he was rumoured to have had an affair.

He worked as a freelance mercenary/military adviser for dictators in Europe, Central America, the Middle East and (later on) Africa. 

But his "other" passion - farming - saw him buy Martinstown House and it's 160 acres of prime farming land in Co Kildare in 1958 and play at being the landed gentry.

Visa issues - and the fact that he was an international war criminal who had only been granted a partial amnesty - meant that Skorzeny could only reside in Ireland for six months of the year. 

But while he was a figure of alarm for the Irish government - he was regarded as something of a intriguing, almost glamorous figure by the Irish newspapers and much of the public (he was not, however, overly popular in the locality in Kildare, being something of a stand-offish character. And the whole, y'know, Nazi war criminal thing).  

He did became a local celebrity in The Curragh, driving around in his distinctive white Mercedes saloon, popping into the Post Office to collect exotically-stamped mail from his "friends and former colleagues" all over the world and even dining out in the best restaurants in Dublin.  On one occasion, he was said to have spent an enjoyable night at a glittering social affair in Dublin, chatting to a young TD called Charlie Haughey - who would go on to be Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) and who always had an eye for strong leaders who were - somehow or other - worth a bob or two. 

Of course, Skorzeny wasn't short of friends in Ireland. Our little republic - staunchly Catholic, ready to do the Vatican's bidding and not prone to asking too many questions - ended up as a bolt hole for a number of high-profile ex-Nazis include the successful businessman Albert Folens of Irish schoolbook publishing and Waffen SS fame. (Folens was a Belgian nazi/collaborator who at one stage led the Flemish SS legion). 

Skorzeny kept up his "international consulting role" right up to his death in fascist Spain in 1975, with one of his last jobs being for the apartheid regime in South Africa, helping to recruit "security and counter-terrorism experts" to fight in the internal and external wars being fought against African liberation movements. 

His ashes were returned to Vienna (after a Catholic funeral mass in Madrid). And Kildare lost one of it's most notable beef farmers.

** For More on Skorzeny, you can check out this good piece from BBCNI Just Click Here

And this is an excellent piece by Irish journalist Kim Bielenberg - "How My Grandfather Tried To Assassinate Hitler" Click Here

***Hey, thanks for reading!*** 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Last Man To Hang - And The Crowd Sang "Champagne Charlie".

* I have written before on the grisly subject of public execution. And the recent commemorations of the Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa brought to mind one of his comrades, the alliterative "forgotten Fenian from Fermanagh", Michael Barrett.

The execution of 27-year-old Barrett, on May 26th, 1868, was the last public judicial killing in England. And the story around it gives us a flavour of how these events were huge public spectacles, carried out in a riotously macabre atmosphere, halfway between a sporting event and a street-party. 


Charles Dickens, a noted attender of public executions, was, regrettably, otherwise engaged. And Karl Marx, who had followed the newspaper stories of "Irish Fenian Outrages" avidly, only wrote about how the actions of the condemned man and his accomplices would turn the working classes against the cause of Ireland.

Marx, a strong supporter of the cause, despaired that the terrorist acts carried out in Britain by the Fenians would prove counter-productive.

"The London masses (wrote Marx), who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”

On May 26th, 1868, 27-year-old Fermanagh man Michael Barrett was taken from his cell in Newgate Prison in London and brought to the scaffold erected outside in the public space. It was three days before a bill to end the practice of public execution would pass through Parliament.

As the noose was placed around his neck and the last rites were read by a Catholic Priest, the crowd sang patriotic songs, including Rule Britannia and the most popular music hall song of the day, the jaunty "Champagne Charlie".

But the crowd was not turbulent or violent, as they had been for previous high-profile executions. Even though anger against the "Irish barbarians" in their midst was running high, the Times newspaper noted (with some caution); The crowd was most unusually orderly - but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”

Public executions were the spectator sport of the mid-Victorian age. Special trains would be laid on to bring vast numbers to the hanging of particularly notorious criminals. The press reported them avidly, special broadsides, pamphlets and souvenir newspaper editions would be printed immediately afterwards, giving those who could not attend a full account of the event. They were popular days out for the Quality, the well-dressed gentlemen & ladies who would pay money to rent good views from rooms overlooking the execution spot, a chance to go "slumming" amongst the teeming masses. Ladies would often dress in elaborate black satin and silk "mourning dresses" to mark the occasion. 

Six months previously, another crowd had watched the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs, three Irish Fenians who had tried to liberate some comrades from a horse-drawn police-van. A policeman had been shot dead. 

Barrett was convicted of another, greater outrage, the bombing of Clerkenwell Prison, another botched attempt at liberating comrades, in which a huge "infernal machine" (a bomb) had been placed against the wall of the prison. 

It blew a 60 yard gap in the Prison wall, but demolished nearby tenements, killing 12 people. 

The terrible death and destruction whipped up a wave of anti-Irish feeling and led even reformers such as Charles Bradlaugh to observe; “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,”

In the popular press of the day, individual Fenians like O'Donovan Rossa (and his U.S. sympathisers) as well as the Irish in general were depicted as brute apes, monkeys sitting atop gunpowder barrels.

Such was the outrage at the Irish Gunpowder men, the authorities were pressed to act fast. And even though the public hangings were about to be ended, the last to hang would be a young Fermanagh man, son of a farmer, an Irish Fenian. 

Barrett has protested his innocence, claiming to be in Glasgow at the time of the explosion. The Crown brought forward witnesses to say he had been in Clerkenwell. One Fenian, Patrick Mullaly, escaped prosecution by turning Crown Witness to say that it was Barrett himself who lit the fuse. 

The young man was a Fenian. But there was strong evidence to say he was in Glasgow at the time the bomb went off, and the Crown case rested on some very questionable eye-witness evidence. No matter, the Disraeli government was under severe pressure from all sides over the "Fenian Panic". Some man had to hang. 

Barrett made an eloquent speech from the dock, proclaiming his innocence of the act but affirming his readiness to die for the cause of Ireland. 

On the morning after the hanging, the Reynold’s News observed, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.” 

Of the hanging itself, it went off without the kind of mob-violence often seen at these events, when drink, excitement and the prospect of seeing a criminal dance at the end of a rope often got the better of the vast crowds that would assemble.

A lengthy sketch in The Times the following day said; A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield—a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

They had gotten what the came for. Revenge for the Clerkenwell Bombing, the spectacle of one of the Fenian Bogey-men hanging from a rope. They had even got to sing "Champagne Charlie" and seen the quality, the well-dressed society men and women who would pay local householders to secure a good seat by a window over-looking the gallows. 

It was the last spectacle of its kind in London. Michael Barrett was the last man to hang in public. One of the last sounds he heard before the trap-door opened was thousands of Londoners, singing the music hall ditty of the day, "Champagne Charlie". 

"Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my name
There's no drink as good as fizz, fizz, fizz
I'll drink every drop there is, is, is
All round town it is the same
By Pop! Pop! Pop! I rose to fame
I'm the idol of the barmaids
Champagne Charlie is my name...." 

If you want to read the full times report of the hanging - you can find it here:
Times Report of The Hanging of Barrett


Friday, 31 July 2015

Jeremy Clarkson Is An Anti-Irish, Non-Racist AssClown Who Sucks Donkey Balls

* He hasn't gone away, you know. And I realise we should just ignore the F**ker but it's hard to, when Amazon drive a dump-truck up to his house and unload a pile of money.

Yet! While I have no photographic or anecdotal proof that Jeremy Clarkson Sucks Donkey Balls, and can provide no witnesses or veterinary experts to back up my claim, it is my strong belief that Jeremy Clarkson does indeed, Suck Donkey Balls.

And the Other Two would do so if he told them to.

So here's my calm, considered argument as to why Jeremy Clarkson is a Non-Racist Who Sucks Donkey Balls. Thank you for feeling my pain. (And apologies for the Wonky Donkey Lay-Out)


Jeremy Clarkson 

* Imagine this. One of the highest-profile, best paid and (apparently best loved) personalities on American TV comes back to their hotel after a day's shooting, finds he can't get a steak and proceeds to punch a subordinate in the face, while calling them a "lazy black c**t".

How long, exactly, would that fictional TV presenter's career last after that moment?

Can you imagine the media-storm, the pressure on President Obama to weigh-in, the howls of opprobrium from the liberal media (and the cries of "witch-hunt" from Fox News)?

Do you think the African-American subordinate in question would come under a lot of pressure to laugh it off as "just a bit of banter" or would have major media figures (and friends and colleagues of the presenter) lining up to say "it's not really racist" or "we know X and he's just not that type of guy - he must have been a bit tired, is all".

He would be out on his ass in 24-hours. And Amazon or Netflix sure as hell wouldn't be banging on his door to give him a multi-million pound contract.

So what's different in Jeremy Clarkson's case? We know the facts - he rolled home to his hotel from a strenuous day of pulling faces and making lame jokes about cars to find he didn't have a hot steak waiting. So he took out his anger on a young Irish subordinate, Oisin Tymon, punched him and called him a "lazy Irish c**t".

Now - replace "Irish" with "Black" (or worse), or "Paki" or ...well you get the idea.

Clarkson did this and almost got away with it. He almost kept his high-profile, highly-paid job in mainstream broadcasting because, well, because it's not really racist if it's a white Irish guy, and Jezza's a bit mad like that, and he's built a brand by "saying the things other TV personalities won't say" and sure it was just banter and that nice Hamster Hammond thinks he's a great guy... and on and on and on.

A Donkey
So - the Non-Racist in question can write things - in a national newspaper - which suggest that airport delays could be solved by "a bit of racism" . 

"Nobody is waved through any more", he wrote in The Sun. 
"The result is plain for all to see. There’s a two-hour wait. And the problem is: the only possible solution is to introduce a bit of racism."
He added: "Nobody likes a racist. Nobody likes prejudice. It has no place at work, at play, or in government. But at Heathrow airport? Hmmm."
And of course, Clarkson generates money. A LOT of money. For himself and his employers. Seems a lot of people are willing to pay to see a guy say the things some/all of us might occasionally be guilty of thinking but cannot say out loud and hope to hang onto our jobs/respect of other people.
So will his new Amazon venture work? I think not. For a number of reasons. Including; 
* Top Gear was fabulously well-resourced, a behemoth of behind the scenes talent and money. Will Amazon be able to replicate that? Can they afford to send multiple camera crews to Tibet or wherever for two weeks to film the trademark stunts and specials? Can they find (and pay) the talent to make it happen? 
* Top Gear is a brand - A brand which is owned by the BBC - Clarkson and Co will not be able to use it, so from the very start, what they do will be a shadow of that brand - an imitation... "High Octane", "Turbo Charge" or "Glop Tear".  
* Top Gear was/is that increasingly rare thing on mainstream TV - Appointment-To-View, Sunday Night Telly - so will it feel the same when you can download (from Amazon's bizarrely user-unfriendly VOD site) and binge-watch? 
* Top Gear Appealed to 30-something and up demographic - they have proved to be pretty resistant to Video-On-Demand. Yes, they will pay for HUGE dramas like House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black - but that's drama - which follows a definite arc and makes you come back for more. Not three guys randomly messing about with cars. 
* There will still be a real Top Gear - with Chris Evans - who offers the attraction of being just as annoying as Clarkson when he puts his mind to it (actually, Evans is a real petrol-head and I think he could do a great job - he has the right personality and skill-set. And if rumours of Jenson Button joining him are true - that's your hard-core, younger petrol-head demo right there). 
So maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But you wonder about the ethical and moral fibre of Amazon - and if they would pay the same money to employ our fictional US host, the fictional asshole I imagined at the start of this rant. 
* HEY! Thanks for reading. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Cpt T. Mayne Reid - The County Down Cowboy Who Inspired Roosevelt & Nabokov

* This is it folks! My most obscure story yet, and that's saying something if you've read past blogs, covering everything from tractor development in Ulster & hamster hunting in the Yemen to the strange sport of Road Bowling.

But I do find this story intriguing. So I'm compelled to share. It's the true tale of the Ulster Presbyterian Cowboy who lit up the lives of schoolboys all over the world with his romantic tales of adventures in exotic lands from Tibet to Texas. It's the story of the now totally forgotten Captain Thomas Mayne Reid.

* He was, in terms of sales and reach, the most successful Irish author of the 19th Century. His breathless tales of adventure (and botany) amongst the plains Indians of North America or the Lamas of Kathmandu were translated into scores of languages and inspired everybody from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Vladimir Nabokov to Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and US president Teddy Roosevelt.

In his time, he was considered a serious rival to Jules Verne. Edgar Allan Poe sang his praises. The two met in Philadelphia and became great drinking buddies.

Original Frontispiece For His Best Known Work
He fought, bravely, for the young US nation, built a Mexican hacienda in suburban London and married well, before dying of "severe melancholia", broke and forgotten. But his fame would live on for generations of schoolboys, including a young Vladimir Nabokov. who at 11 years of age, translated his best known novel "The Headless Horseman" from English prose into French alexandrines (a type of poetic metre favoured for romantic epics).

He was Captain Thomas Mayne Reid of Ballyroney, Co Down (and all parts North, South, East and West).

Born the son of a Presbyterian Minister in Ulster in 1818, he studied first for the church and then worked as a schoolteacher in his native land before becoming restless and heading for the United States in 1840.

He arrived in New Orleans and embarked on a colourful life as fur trapper, frontier school-master, and society writer for a Philadelphia newspaper (where he met with Poe and became a fast friend and drinking companion).

When war broke out with Mexico in 1846, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the US Army, fought at Vera Cruz and was badly wounded while leading the charge at the battle of Chapultepec (where he would have witnessed the execution of scores of Catholic Irishmen, deserters from the US army who crossed the lines to fight with the Mexicans as the brave but doomed San Patricio Brigade - for their story, see here )

It was after the war, while recovering from his wounds, that he started to write seriously, while living in Ohio with an army buddy called Donn Piatt, who would go on to become famous in his own right as a Union General in the Civil War, wealthy publisher, patron of the arts and builder of gothic castles in the prairie lands of the West.

It was in London, in the early 1850's, that Reid began to find success with a line of adventure novels for boys, with titles like The Scalp Hunters, The Headless Horseman, White Squaw And Yellow Chief.

In total, he would write around 75 novels and many short stories and sketches - many were published in part-work in periodicals or sold as what would become to be known as dime-store novels.

These were florid, sentimental, wildly adventurous tales of cowboys and Indians, tales of the Prairie Lands and the West (only then being opened up), of Mexican banditos, brave cavalry officers, trappers, prospectors and explorers.

Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1873
One curious feature of the novels is his fascination with botany and natural history. Quite often, Mayne Reid would include the latin names of the plants or animals that featured in his stories, lines such as; "the cowboys heard a noise from just over the bluff, and began to crawl through the sage brush (Artemisia Tridenta).. far off in the distance, the sound of restless buffalo (Bison Bisonus)..".

One reviewer pointed out that the Irishman had missed his calling and should really be writing for a scientific journal.

His novels were hugely popular and found an audience around the world, especially in Poland and Russia where he was still a hero to schoolboys right up until the 1960s.

Reid became very famous and very rich. But he appears to have had a poor way with money and business. He sunk a large fortune into building an authentic Mexican Hacienda in North London (now, sadly gone) and found that as his style became very dated in the US and Europe, his money ran out quickly. He died in 1883 in London (at the age of 65 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetary, his gravestone bearing a line from The Scalp Hunters; "This is 'weed prairie'; it is misnamed: It is the Garden of God."

He influenced a generation of schoolboys. President Teddy Roosevelt called him "one of the greatest inspirations of my life" and credited him with sparking a love of the outdoors and wild places which helped push the grown up Teddy into establishing the first National Parks.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - writer of the Sherlock mysteries - credited him as a major influence and inspiration.

Nabokov, in his autobiography Speak, Memory, name-checks all of the great writers who inspired him. But one gets more prominence than Blok, Pushkin, Flaubert, Kafka, Tolstoy etc. And that is the writer who "totally captivated me as a boy, a writer of Wild West Romances, Captain Thomas Mayne Reid".

Nabakov even admits to re-reading The Headless Horseman, his favourite, in adulthood and spends quite a while in his biography analysing the Mayne style and quoting his favourite lines (such as the description of a glass decanter glimpsed behind a Texan saloon-keeper; "an iris sparkling behind his shoulder".

He is almost totally forgotten now. But Thomas Mayne Reid inspired a generation of schoolboys to do everything from explore the world and run for president to put pen to paper.


* This is from the Spectator Magazine of London, from the long obituary published shortly after the writer's death.

"The real cause of the popularity of Captain Mayne Reid's novels, which, as regards one or two of them, may last long, is that they gratify not the boyish, but the human love for pure romance, for stories in which there are practically fairies, though they are called Mexican ladies, and genii, though they are dressed as American filibusters, and devils, though they appear as Don Rafaels or Antonios ; and probabilities are set aside, and every- thing happens as it is convenient it should happen, and nobody cares a dump whether there are any laws, human or divine, or not. Adventures are adventured, and the adventurers fall into frightful dangers, and get out of them again by wonderful means; and laws, literary or other, are simply a burden. That is the secret of the "Arabian Nights," and it is that of Mayne Reid, as is also that of the indefinitely abler novels sold in such scores of thousands by Jules Verne"


Thursday, 9 July 2015

Sam Beckett & The Tour de France

* Watching the Tour de France cycle race at the moment - and it got me thinking about Irish writer Samuel Beckett, his love of cycling and sport and the sporting connections of some other great Irish writers. So I decided to write this....

That's Young Sam Beckett - Second From Left

Sam Beckett was many things, great Irish writer, French Resistance Hero, personal school-run driver for the young André The Giant (a true story, as any Pub Bore like myself will tell you). 
After two years of chats with Beckett - Andre Got A Bike

Beckett was also a sports maniac - a first class cricketer for Trinity College, a fearsome amateur boxer, rugby-player, motorcyle racer and life-long Irish rugby supporter (it was said that publishers and others who dealt with him knew better than to bother Beckett when Ireland were playing). 

He loved bicycles, often mentioning them and using them as a motif in his works. And his best known play, Waiting For Godot, was apparently inspired (in part or name at least) by the Tour de France, and a hopeless old French pro-cyclist who was famous for always being last and always being late. 

The literary scholar Hugh Kenner, in his essay "The Cartesian Centaur" says that Beckett once, when asked about the inspiration for Godot, talked about "a veteran racing cyclist, bald, a 'stayer,' recurrent placeman in town-to-town and national championships, Christian name elusive, surname Godeau, pronounced, of course, no differently from Godot."

This Godeau was always the last to finish, sometimes trailing in hours behind the rest of the field, forcing frustrated race officials to miss their evening meals as the sun went down and they waited. And waited. And waited. 

Another story is that one day while walking through the streets of Paris Beckett stopped to ask members of a large crowd what they were doing. The weary spectators replied, "We are waiting for Godot," explaining that he was the oldest cyclist in the Tour de France, and had not yet passed by.
The Original Godot

That story may be a little too on-the-nose. But there really was a French pro-cyclist called Roger Godeau and (depending on who you believe) Beckett really did spend a pointless afternoon waiting for him once, while watching the famous Paris-Roubaix road race. 

The story gets even more sauce if you believe that - when Waiting For Godot had it's premier in Paris in 1953 - theatre goers who also knew their pro-cycling "got" the little joke about always waiting for this Godot character (and a few even laughed out loud - not a reaction normally associated with the famously downbeat masterpiece).

Godeau's nickname was "Popeye" (fans reckoned he looked a little like the cartoon sailor) and I often wonder if he was aware of the inspiration he provided to one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th Century?

And having done a little research into his record, it seems Roger did actually have some wins to his name and may not have been as hopeless as the Beckett story suggests. But why let that ruin a good tale?

"We've got a horse for ya!" - Bacon & Freud 
Another unique Irish artist of the 20th Century - the painter Francis Bacon - was a fiend for the horses - a hopeless gambler who knew the bookies of Soho very well and dropped many fortunes on beaten dockets. His appetite for roulette tables and race-horses was legendary - as was that of his best friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud.

Bacon's devotion to horse racing may be explained by his father's occupation - he was a noted race horse trainer on the famous Curragh in Kildare.

The two artists would bounce around the dives of Soho in the '50s and '60s, poring over a battered copy of the Racing Post and gambling away every penny they had. One bookie - a man called Alfie McLean - eventually agreed to take paintings from the two when they couldn't pay their debts. By the time Alfie died in 2006, he had 23 paintings by Freud (including many portraits of himself and his family) and around 8 Francis Bacon canvasses. Which were later auctioned off for just under £100m.

Brendan Behan loved the GAA and one of his most famous fashion accessories was a Rosette supporting the footballers of Co Down (for non GAA fans, the supporters of a team will often shout "Up Kerry!" or "Up Dublin!" depending on their county allegiance. Behan was a Dubliner who couldn't resist the surreal sentiments of a rosette that contradictorily proclaimed "Up Down!".)

Sometime soon - I'll explain how James Joyce's Ulysses is actually a searing indictment of anti-Semitism in the Gaelic Athletic Association.

But for now, we'll leave it there.

** Footnote - the reason why I know about Beckett & Godeau is because I was once sat next to a Beckett scholar at a dinner party. In the spirit of joining in,  I mentioned hearing this story and he basically looked at me (and my lack of a great college education) as some random idiot who was talking through his ass. And then voiced his opinion of me loudly.

So - instead of braining him with a wine-bottle - I went home and spent about two weeks researching the whole thing, so as to get my facts right for the next time I ran into Prof. J Smug-Condescending-Bastard.

I still haven't met the man again. But I come from a long line of patient, vengeful men.

And if you are reading this, Mr Professor, I'll be out there in the long grass. Waiting for you. You bastard.

**** hey! Thanks for reading!*******

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Little Bit Of Me On The Radio, Talking About Dining In Public Toilets

Marian Finucane

I was on Irish radio recently - the Marian Finucane show on our national broadcaster, RTE.

I was talking about an amazing dining experience I had recently - we got the chance to have lunch in the Peer's Dining Room of the House of Lords, it's basically the most exclusive (and then some) dining room in London and normally host to the great and the good - including US presidents.

You can listen to the radio bit Here - there's a small preamble about the Irish Navy rescue missions in the Med - then me, talking about the House of Lords and then about the latest trend to hit London dining - restaurants and bars in former public toilets (seriously).
Peers Dining Room

The Peer's Dining Room in particular is an amazing experience and they are looking to open it again in September - if you are in London or can get there, I would recommend keeping an eye on the website - http://www.parliament.uk/ and regularly checking out the section on the Peer's Dining Room.


Monday, 8 June 2015

Summer In London? Try Something Different.

* Hi - regular readers might know that I am based in London at the moment - still doing/available for work in Ireland, but enjoying one of the great cities of the world, especially now that the summer has arrived. And London does summer very differently to Ireland - it's an actual season, with lots of sun and very little chance of having your kids battered senseless by hailstones while you cower in a park in Dublin or Galway.

ANYHOW! We have a lot of visitors who come to stay with us (popular, natch) and they always ask me about things they can do in London that are a little different from the usual touristy activities.

So here - in a bid to educate others but also have a handy one-stop guide for annoying visitors who "forgot" to get a six-pack of Tayto coming through duty-free - is my off-the-top-of-my-head guide to doing summertime in London differently....

"Sarf of the River at this time of night? You're 'aving a laff, aintcha!?"

LONDON! City of a thousand gourmet burger bars, botoxed Russian billionaires and prices so steep, you'll want to exit the Euro!

It's a fantastic city, and great in the summertime, if you can avoid the tourist hordes (don't go to Oxford Street and NEVER stand on the left on the Underground's escalators)

But what about the London that only smug blow-ins and locals (if you can find one, seriously, endangered species) know about?

I love exploring the city - and I love its more hidden spots, where you can see London from a different angle, get a real sense of a madly hectic, ever evolving city where people fondly remember the last wave of immigrants who used to live round 'ere before the current wave of immigrants. Seriously, just look at Brixton - posh-ish suburb in the '30s, Irish enclave in the fifties, Afro-Caribbean in the '70s and '80s and now full of South & Central Americans, hipsters and Africans (also a lot of Aussies, but that's more the Clapham end so don't go up there).

So in no particular order, and if you are gonna find yourself in London this summer I would recommend;

* Pop Brixton

Yes, yes, it's a "pop-up market" in a very hipsterish part of town - but don't let that put you off - this brand new addition to Brixton's thriving street-life is a collection of re-purposed shipping containers and cleverly designed walkways, outside seaingt areas and public spaces that is REALLY buzzing at the moment and offers lots of colour, good food, drink and great atmosphere - really worth putting at the top of your list if you are coming over the summer - more info Here

Also Brixton is also worth visiting for the great old reliable......

* The Brixton Market

Would seriously recommend this place if you are down in South London - just take the Victoria Line South to the very end, come out, turn left then left again down Electric Avenue (say hello to Eddy Grant) and you will find a series of huge, indoor arcades stuffed with weird shops and some of the best eating and drinking you will find in London. It's very trendy, but still very "local" and always surprises - take a few hours and wander around - great food, loads of outdoor seating and lots of colour.

Brixton's great for a wander - but being gentrified at an alarming rate - so get down there fast.

* Visit Eltham Palace

Bizarrely located in a pretty nondescript, dowdy part of Suburban East London, this Medieval royal palace, a childhood home to Henry VIII - has an amazing secret. The fabulously wealthy and glam society couple Stephen & Ginny Courtauld bought what was a derelict site in the 1930s and built a stunning art deco country house within the ancient moated grounds - grafting it onto the remains of the Medieval Great Hall.

Entrance Hall At Eltham Palace - Art Deco Glam 
It's a stunning example of British Art Deco that was only their home for a brief few years before and during WWII (when the couple and guests would sit on the lawn on a hill high over the city, looking at the Luftwaffe pounding away at London).

It's now run by English Heritage and may seem like a bit of a trip out of the city centre - but it is gorgeous (with great gardens) and can be done in a morning or afternoon.

More info Visit Eltham Palace 

* Franks Bar - Peckham

Frank's Some - View 
Hardly a secret to those in the know in London - but this bar and street food place on the top floor of a very dingy multi-story carpark in Peckham (another hipster hotspot) is well worth a visit for good food, drinks and vast panoramic views over London. Try and get there early-ish if it's a weekend and the sun is out because it gets RAMMED! Also - the toilets are a bit music-festival. So not for the squeamish. Their site is Here

* Have Lunch In A Toilet

Latest craze amongst novelty-obsessed diners in London? Having drinks, dinner etc in a former Victorian Public Convenience.

"Excuse me, where are the toilet...oh, right!" 
Seriously, there are now about 15 mostly high-end cocktail bars and cafes in porcelain palaces that once only had menu options Number 1 and Number 2.

The Attendant Cafe (geddit?) up on Foley Street in W1 offers high end coffee and sandwiches in a urinal based setting - really, you sit in former urinals.

These are all underground and all magnificent tributes to the love lavished on public toilets by the Victorians.

And "Story" down by Tower Bridge is a Michelin starred eatery in another disused Victorian WC.

See more about Attendant - on their website.

* The Grenadier Pub, Belgrave Sq

Down a mews-lined laneway in Belgrave, right in the heart of the embassy district, this is a small, lovely old London pub - a real star of the pub scene - if you find yourself in this neck of the woods and fancy a lovely pint of beer in a very unusual, quiet setting, check it out. Hard to find - would recommend you downlond the CityMapper app https://citymapper.com/ - a great, free way to navigate your way around the city.

* Gordon's Wine Bar - Villiers Street near Charing Cross

A real London Institution - a subterranean wine-bar open for 125 years - in the winter, a real cave, in the summer, a large, long outdoor seating area that's very popular with Londoners, post-work crowd etc - it's down near Charing Cross Stn, in a very busy part of London - and it can get VERY busy at the weekends, but definitely worth popping in for a glass of vino if you are in the area. And if it is too jammed - a tip, go to the nearby Sainsburys, get some drinks and go to the small park in front of
Gordon's just by the river - you can have a little alcoholic picnic in a lovely setting for little money (but just keep the bottles discreet, strictly speaking, you are not supposed to be drinking there - but everybody does).

* The Cutty Sark - Greenwich.

Greenwich is a bit hard to get to - and very packed with tourists - but go to the market for a bite to eat (great Lebanese falafel stall there) and then walk down the river path in front of the Royal Hospital to the Cutty Sark pub - pub itself is so-so - but the long row of tables right on the river bank give you a great view of the river and the city - the nearby Trafalgar Inn is also worth a visit.

* The Festival Hall On The SouthBank

Right - here's a good one - if you are down by the South Bank - the London Eye - in front of the Festival Hall main entrance there is LOADS of seating, right up over the river with views of the Houses of Parliament etc - and you can bring your own drink (or get drinks from the bar outside - or cheaper pints from the festival hall bar inside) - I LOVE this place on Fri afternoons - you see lots of colour and lots of people and can watch the boats going up and down the river and a Waterloo Sunset.

There is also an amazing terrace upstairs in the festival hall (see pic) which you can access for the price of a pint in the bar - gets busy at weekends - and they won't let you smoke up there - same goes for the nearby roof terrace (just look for the big yellow sign) so they can feck off.

* Brockwell Lido

Go for a swim in the city - this is near Brixton - a lovely, 50m outdoor pool that's very popular with Locals and visitors alike in the summer - again, tends to get jammed at sunny weekends so get there early - great food as well and a lovely cafe.

There are Lidos all over London - well worth checking out to see if there is one near where you are - the Serpentine Lake is one I plan to visit this summer.

* Hampstead

Yes, very posh and very expensive - but get the Tube up there and wander around - you can walk on the heath (good views over the city) visit the Lido or just hang in the cafes - very fashionable crowds and great place to have a goo at the quality.

* The French House, Soho

Soho is changing fast - and not for the better if you believe the anti-gentrification/keep Soho raw crowd. It's very busy but I would recommend the French House for drinks and the Bar Italia for coffee - to get a sense of the Old Soho that is very, very quickly disappearing.

* Artusi - Peckham

If you love your food - this relatively recent arrival on the scene is now reckoned to be one of the best in London - it's in a lovely part of Peckham (!) Bellenden Road, and there's a great pub called the Montpellier around the corner - book ahead though, it's jammers. Link - Artusi

If you can't get into Artusi - check out the Begging Bowl Thai resturant nearby - cheap-ish and reckoned to be one of the best in South London.


A rare survivor in a very unglam part of town - this is a mid-19th century music hall that - through a weird quirk of fate - survived being knocked down.

There are great music events on here all week and it's got fantastic history and surroundings - real, old London, down by the docks - see more Here

* I realise I am only scratching the surface here - but hopefully there are a few suggestions you'll think worth following up - thanks for reading!