Loyalism and Popular Culture

This article was originally written in June 2013 for the loyalist ex-prisoners’ website Long Kesh Inside Out. It followed on from articles which had been written by former UVF/RHC prisoners about their memories of music and books during their time in the compounds. Some of the article repeats thoughts that I included in my article on Ruefrex many moons ago.

Some thoughts on Loyalism and the Protestant working class (and popular culture!)

The recent series of articles written by ex-prisoners about the music and books that they consumed while in Long Kesh and beyond made for intriguing reading. If some of these thoughtful recollections got the wider audience they richly deserve some of the well-worn stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding Loyalist prisoners might receive the challenge they so desperately merit. One of the delightful (but economically dangerous) aspects of these pieces was that I felt compelled to make a list of yet more interesting books to buy. I have books that I bought in 1998 that I still haven’t looked at. It’s music however that has always had a special place in my life. Indeed in 2002 or thereabouts I was told by my girlfriend at the time that I was like the character ‘Rob Fleming/Gordon’ in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I’m still not entirely sure whether that was a compliment or an insult – I’ll err on the latter…with a degree of slightly bruised pride.

I think music is crucial to experiences and memories, and the ‘Who Put That On?’ articles show that particular songs and LPs are central to the oral/written life histories of the ex-prisoners who wrote those articles. One of the problems with the otherwise excellent histories of Northern Ireland’s conflict that have been written by academics is that we don’t get the whole picture of the people who were involved; either as combatants, security forces or civilians. Of course it’s totally unreasonable to expect a survey of everyone’s musical and literature preferences and the stories behind them, but I’ve found the excellent book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose to be an encouraging reference point for some of the work I’m trying to do.

We know that working class people on both sides of the sectarian interface in Northern Ireland became involved in the conflict, so why has the Loyalist experience of popular culture and the ‘intellectual life’ been reduced to the two sad reference points of pornography and the gym? When looking through the photographs on LKIO last summer I was struck, but not surprised, by the picture of a Loyalist prisoner’s cell with a copy of Neil Young’s Harvest in the shot. Generally I’d imagine when Joe Bloggs thinks of Loyalists in prison they don’t automatically imagine a young man queuing up for the record player to hear introspective songs such as ‘Old Man’ or ‘Heart of Gold’; pumping iron in the prison gym while listening to the Bay City Rollers (or rave music later) is probably the knee-jerk image. That is what has been fed to people – that is what has put Loyalism in the dock of popular culture. The recent articles by G.I. and Billy Joe put forward the case for the defence, and do so convincingly.

Interestingly the embarrassing stereotype and the more reasoned reality dovetail in the examples of two Shankill Road bands. I noted how Billy Joe mentioned that punk wasn’t a big thing in Long Kesh due to the falling number of new prisoners in the late 1970s. In the recent hagiography of Terri Hooley, Good Vibrations, the Protestant working class are lambasted and stereotyped as being right-wing and unthinking. Two ‘Shankill Skins’ apprehend the ‘loveable’ Hooley (played by Richard Dormer) in his record shop and after thrusting a demo tape into his hands demanding that he sign them the two youths whale into Hooley and beat him to within an inch of his life. To the initiated we are left in no doubt that the two skins are meant to be Johnny Adair and Sam McCrory and the demo tape is that of the lamentable Offensive Weapon. Offensive Weapon was Adair and Skelly’s homage to renowned fascist Ian Stuart’s band Skrewdriver. Hugh Jordan may not be the most popular journalist around these parts but I can guarantee his opinion of Offensive Weapon is 100 per cent accurate – they were awful (I have heard the tapes)!

At the same time there was another band from the Greater Shankill called Ruefrex. They were borne from the same overall punk roster that rubbish like Offensive Weapon emerged from but were an articulate and musically superior band who were also fiercely proud of their working class Protestant heritage while being non-sectarian. Paul Burgess, the band’s drummer and songwriter, grew up in Jersey Street – beside a certain William Hutchinson! In 2005 he wrote about the band’s experiences in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

We evoked the wrath of both communities, although it was probably more politically incorrect and damaging to be portrayed as the ‘Prod’ band as opposed, say, to That Petrol Emotion as the “oppressed” RC one. You’ll still find – in regard to arts and cultural undertakings – that the Ulster Protestant community must overcome these initial prejudicial comparisons with the perceived cultural oppression of South Africa, Israel and the like. You can only sing with credibility about your own experience and culture. Or, of course, reject it and adopt some bogus stance.

Paul interestingly blew away the myth of the Harp Bar as being some kind of cross-community mecca for the youth of the day. He remembers the band being subject to sectarian abuse and even threatened by a shadowy figure wielding a gun (all for the crime of once playing a cover of ‘Ulster Boy’ by Sham 69!). Of course the fact that they were staunchly non-sectarian mattered little to some of these bigots. Again it also seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t fit into the punk scene – they didn’t dress like punks (so much for the individualism of punk!) and were accused of being ‘spider-men’. Elvis Costello was so disgusted by their outlook and background that he unashamedly branded them “Orange bastards!”

Unlike some other bands of the era Ruefrex didn’t shy away from singing about the contemporary situation and reassessed various strands of their Ulster Protestant culture. Anyone who is interested in the contemporary history of Belfast’s Protestant working class and Loyalist community should recognise the importance of Ruefrex in describing and shaping that history.

Of course Offensive Weapon are going to loom larger over accounts of the Troubles owing to the fact that the majority of the personalities associated with the band went on to become notorious paramilitaries, but it is worth remembering the stories that were going on in the background. Ruefrex’s struggle to be heard is perhaps microcosmic of the overall struggle of the Protestant working class to be understood in terms of popular culture. Loyalist ex-prisoners are an integral part of this story. People would rather concentrate on the jutting, strutting hulk in the gym than the more nuanced characters that made up many of the young men in Long Kesh during the 1970s and 1980s.

Ultimately I think there is more to our recent past than what has been written. There is a need to add layers to the stories of individuals and get past the assumptions.

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