This is England


god save queen

As I was getting ready to leave for work this  morning I heard on the radio an interview with John Lydon talking about his new book, Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, which includes the lyrics to every song he’s ever written, from his Sex Pistols days forward.

Fun fact: Lydon says he got his nickname, Johnny Rotten, from the green, decayed teeth he had when recruited for the Sex Pistols.

So for your Friday, here’s a John Lydon and, given the events of the week, Brexit-inspired playlist featuring the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Billy Bragg.

Skip the green beer, I’ll take the music and the craic

Upstairs at Madden's Bar, Belfast.
Upstairs at Madden’s Bar, Belfast.


Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day when Americans of varied ethnicities celebrate an Irish saint by mistaking four-leaf clovers for shamrocks and getting wasted on bad beer dyed an unnatural shade of green.

For most of my adult life this is a day I never paid much attention to. Too many rookie drinkers at the bars here to make it all that much fun. Unless, that is, you’ve got friends playing music at one of those bars, and then the story is different.

One of the things I love about the research trips I make to Northern Ireland is that I’ve come to know and become friends with some astonishingly good traditional Irish musicians.

So in honor of St. Patrick and my friends in Belfast, here are videos of some of the folks I’ve gotten to meet, play a tune, raise a glass, and enjoy the craic¹ with. Ól, ceol, agus craic!²

¹Craic is an Irish word for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. In short, good times. Often used with the definitive article — the craic — as in “What’s the craic?” meaning “What’s going on?” or “Enjoying a bit of the craic” meaning a pleasant time out with friends and acquaintances.

²Drink, music, and a good time!

Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/
Image: Ricky Adam/


On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

Yes, “Zulu” is the best movie, maybe ever

men of harlech
The Welsh deliver in the film’s climactic sing-off.


While I was checking out Tom Ricks’ blog over at Foreign Policy this morning I ran across his take on a list of the 25 best British war movies ever, produced last year by the writers at ThinkDefence, a website dedicated to discussion of UK defense and security issues.

Their list is a more than a little idiosyncratic. Here’s how they describe the judging criteria:

We could argue all day about the definition of a British War Film and what the best means but for this entirely unscientific list, the definition of a British War Film is one that is largely British in character. They may have been directed by non-British directors, have non-British actors and may even have been made in Hollywood or elsewhere, but they retain that element of Britishness that we all understand. So no Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now or other such great films.

The judging criteria do not include historical accuracy, whether the correct buttons and rank insignia were worn, or whether the film is a ‘visceral and worthy portrayal of the realities of war’ or some other such artsy bollocks, instead, it is simply enjoyability for a wet Sunday afternoon in. So, it is not a list for the film buff, historian or the yoghurt-weaving wheatgrass smoothy types for them to bemoan the inhumanity and pointlessness of war.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, more than half of the films listed. But that’s beside the point. Also beside the point, at least in this post, is that way too many of the films listed have more than a little whiff of racism accompanying their celebration of Britain’s heroic imperialist past.

The point is that “Zulu” takes the prize as the greatest British war film of all time, and I couldn’t agree more. This is a movie I saw for the first time as a kid while on our annual family summer vacation. Even on the 13-inch TV screen of a Holiday Inn hotel room, the movie was an impressive spectacle. And it fueled what has remained a lifelong fascination with history, military affairs, the rise and fall of empires, and other such things. Oh yeah, and my anglophilia.

Despite some nagging historical inaccuracies, this movie delivers. Here’s how ThinkDefence sums it up:

Zulu is a 1964 epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It depicts 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded patients in a field hospital, who successfully held off a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Probably no surprise this is Number 1

Forget the outrageous slurs on the good character of Private Henry Hook (who was a model soldier and campaigning tee-totaller) and Commissaryy James Langley Dalton (who was the most experienced soldier at the mission station and widely credited with initiating the defence)


Forget British War Films, this is the best War Film full stop, in fact, forget War Films, Zulu is without a shadow of a doubt, THE best film ever made

The best bits are far too many to list.

 Couldn’t agree more. Men of Harlech, stand ye steady indeed.