Monthly Archives: January 2008

To Putney, via Old Bexley

Nick Robinson’s blog has, very much as an after-thought, this:

I can’t eradicate from my mind a terrible idea. Could Conway – who tried to stop Cameron becoming leader, who dubbed his mates ‘the Notting Hill set’ and condemned their out of touch liberal metropolitan ways – have decided on one final desperate act to destroy the modernisation project albeit whilst destroying himself at the same time? Could he be the modern day political equivalent of a kamikaze pilot?
No, you’re right, that’s a grotesque idea. How the mind plays tricks…
PS: I hesitated for reasons of taste to dub Derek Conway a political suicide bomber, only to learn that that phrase is already doing the rounds amongst Conservative MPs.

Fair enough.

However, Malcolm believes that the “suicide bomber”tag is less about the Tories losing the political wind as a result of the Conway affair, and more about the Nasty Party getting the wind up that this represents the terminus for the Parliamentary gravy train.

We shall surely now see greater “transparency”. That will involve a change of Speaker (Gorbals Mick is the biggest single blocker of reform on allowances and perks).

Then, further down the line, we can hope for scrutiny of appointments to private offices. That means an end to the pay-offs for exes, might-bes and other beds that go bump in the conference season: the parliamentary pandar being a well-attested species.

And, perhaps in the far distance, a trimming of the generous Parliamentary pension arrangements.

Cue Colonel Rainborow:

I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he has not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or not that should doubt of these things.

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Core values …

Thursday evening, Malcolm trots to the Maynard Arms in fashionable Crouch End, there to join the Labour Party‘s Audience with Dennis Skinner, MP.

Now, Dennis is not so much “Old Labour” (and rightly proud of it) as totally primeval. Malcolm, however, largely approves of the old shell-back: Skinner says what he means, with a sly and devious humour, and means what he says. He comes from the same stock and locality as Malcolm’s paternal line. He is transparently straight and honest.

What interested Malcolm was how the audience reacted to Skinner’s traditional stump-speech. The applause and chortles came when Skinner went for royalty and the Press, and mildly suggested that the railways might work better nationalized. This, let it be recorded, before a mixed (age, gender, background), largely professional, and wholly sophisticated group. Scratch a Labour Party and find a Labourite.

The Press we deserve

So Malcolm addresses, today, just one of those items.

What he also finds surprising is that so many others whom he encounters share a similar view of the British Meejah.

As a generalisation, politics, and the business of governance are treated as a sub-genre of soap-opera. Each new day needs a new episode, a new and predictable crisis, a new face or two. At the moment, the universal will of our newspapers and television seems to be a yearning for a wholesale replacement of characters, the introduction of new giants whose feet will, in short order, be revealed to be made of clay.

Dennis Skinner, and many others like him, see in this an inherent anti-Labour bias: they may have reason. Whatever: we saw it in, first, the demand for an autumn election, and, then, in the subsequent rubbishing of Gordon Brown for not thereby filling columns for the next six weeks. Skinner sees the remedy in Labour reclaiming the agenda: again, he may well be correct. Malcolm, however, suspects that the knee-jerking of the print and electronic journos would misrepresent any such attempt, just out of habit.

Rocking the boat

Malcolm reaches for a way of giving an example.

He takes one on which Skinner repeatedly touched: Northern Rock.

This continuing saga is being depicted as one of governmental failure, because Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling consistently fail to take the ever-changing advice and prescriptions (swallowed wholesale by the pundits) of the Opposition.

Despite this, the bank still survives; the British banking system has not been brought tumbling down; the burden of debt has not (yet) been taken on by the tax-payer; the British economy continues to expand. Yes, in the face of the trans-atlantic crisis, the British economy will grow
and grow faster than any other G8 country over the coming year:

In its Winter forecast released on Monday the ITEM Club, sponsored by Ernst & Young, showed that the UK economic growth will ease in 2008. The economic growth is expected to slow to 1.8% in 2008 from 3.1% in 2007. The think tank believes that the abrupt reversal in the credit markets in 2007 could result in a sharp decline in economic growth.

Chief Economic Advisor to the Ernst & Young ITEM Club Peter Spencer said: … “As the Bank of England’s interest rate cuts begin to take effect, the economy should pick up. With the money markets begin to thaw out we can be a bit more optimistic. So, touching wood, 2008 should not be such a bad year after all. Then I expect GDP growth to move back up to 2.5% in 2009.”

Not so dusty, then. But, hark! what is this other rusting in the undergrowth?

Questions have been raised over the effects on the markets of the rogue trader who lost 4.9bn euros ($7.1bn; £3.7bn) at Société Générale.
Analysts are trying to assess whether the trader’s actions contributed to the stock market turmoil and the Fed decision to cut interest rates.

Malcolm’s reading of that goes like this: a £3.7bn default at a French bank had serious international implications, because it was so badly handled. The British Government and the Bank of England are successfully managing an apparent soft-landing for a potentially far bigger (by perhaps a multiple of twenty) debacle. No kudos from the Meejah lizards, only brickbats and abuse.

Don’t stand too close to me

And there is one further dimension that irritates Malcolm.

Unlike the US, British bloggers are cajoled into following the mainstream media line. Not, of course, the small-timers (like Malcolm), but those half-dozen big-hitters who hog the local cybersphere’s limelight.

These “stars” of the broadband have, effectively, been bought and bought out by the mainstream outlets.

Iain Dale (claimed to have the biggest single presence on the UK blog-scene) is on the pay-roll of the Daily Telegraph, and has a working relationship with both the Independent and the Guardian (to the extent of having his own by-line, right). There is, therein, a direct link from the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, via an important blog-site, to the bowels of the Daily Beast.

Guido Fawkes
, a.k.a. Paul Staines, had maintained a hands-off honesty until, last year, he, too, sold out to the BBC Newsnight. Staines took the perfectly-proper view which Malcolm is trying to expound here, that the Press was too close to the politicos. His derivative interview with Michael White was a failure, as Staines himself recognised. That went a long way, in Malcolm’s mind, to redeeming himself, except that Staines (along with Dale) market their offerings in a crudely commercial way:

The country’s top political blogs Guido Fawkes, ConservativeHome.com and Iain Dale have partnered with four other political websites to launch online advertising sales service MessageSpace.

The company aims to get advertisers wanting to appeal directly to the political classes and opinion formers in Whitehall and Westminster.

Alex Hilton, the editor of Labourhome.org and Recess Monkey, who runs ad sales company EOS Online Media, is behind the venture…

Opinion sites from across the political divide have become partners in the service with Labourhome, Political Betting, Recess Monkey and LibDem Blogs joining the big three to offer exposure to more than a million readers every month.

Malcolm reads that again, very carefully, and very cynically. It seems that this aggregation of “top” political bloggers, what tamounts to the critical mass in the local political blogosphere, are blatant in selling themselves to “the political classes and opinion formers in Whitehall and Westminster”.

At which point Malcolm is heard muttering after Jonathan Swift:

The Vermin only teaze and pinch
Their Foes superior by an Inch.
So Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller Fleas to bite ’em
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Even Malcolm’s place of regular resort, Slugger O’Toole, is less than totally “independent”. Any resort thereto has been loud with an intrusive advertisement for the webcast “18 Doughty Street” (which was another vehicle for Iain Dale and his right-wing cronies, but sheds personnel like autumn leaves in Paradise Lost I.302). And Slugger’s main ornament and progenitor, Mick Fealty, formerly an associate of The Guardian, now props up the Telegraph’s Brassneck — indeed the ad and the hotlink for that leads the Slugger web-page.

What price independence?

The blogosphere gives all of us a degree of independence. Here we can exercise First Amendment rights in a way never before experienced. The nearest equivalent is the explosion of pamphleteering at the start of the seventeenth century. George Orwell, a connoisseur of the pamphlet as a medium, described it thus:

The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and ‘high-brow’ than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of ‘reportage.’ All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.

Malcolm accepts that in toto, if demurring seriously over the word “short”. But he hesitates, too, over the ambiguity of “unbound”.

  • Can the likes of Dale, Staines and Fealty then be, in all truth, “unbound”?
  • Why, apart from enjoying the revenue, should a “free” medium like this be “bound” by advertising?
  • What, by the acceptance of an ad, becomes verboten?
  • What inhibitions flow therefrom?
  • Why is the relationship between these bloggers and the traditional media so cosy?

That is why Malcolm resolves, in future, to eschew all those polls and mutual-backscratchings that the cybersphere seems to revel in.

Prometheus Unbound?
So, back to Dennis Skinner.
Skinner is a Labour man through-and-through. He knows viscerally whom to care for, and whom to hate. What he may lack in “ideology”, he more than compensates in gut-feeling. And in that he is correct.
His loyalty to the Labour Movement is total, yet he has an honourable record of failing to obey the Party Whip. And that, too, is proper and correct. Like the legend of Prometheus, he brings fire to humankind, and for that is punished by the gods of the Media. Better that than to be a supine creature of the Politinform system that bedevils our democracy.

Nobody, except his own keen appreciation of his constituency, dictates to him. He cannot be bought. He comes, as his Parliamentary declaration shows, without sponsorship or advertisement:
SKINNER, Dennis (Bolsover)
Nil.
Which, in Malcolm’s book, qualifies him to speak and be heard. Compare that, as Skinner himself did, to the parallel entry by William Hague, over a page in length, and listing swathes of after-dinner speeches, all made at £10-20,000 a time. When one is proffering that amount of moolah, does one expect to be chastised or confronted with unpleasantness? What “freedom of speech” is being exercised there?

Dennis Skinner talks in a different accent, but a similar mode to Tony Benn :

Democracy is the most revolutionary idea in the world, nobody in power likes it.

The democratic, free blogger aspires to just that uncomfortable and discomforting posture:

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!

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Malcolm wonders

Hello! What’s this? It’s the estimable, totally unbiased and absolutely devoted-to-the-actualité Nick Robinson, no less. Banging on about Peter Hain and political donations. Again.

And — look here! — a neat little hot-link to Who are the biggest political donors?

But that can’t be correct, can it? There’s a name missing, surely?

Where is the Lord Ashcroft?

Thow know’st: Michael Anthony Ashcroft. He of the KCMG and Belize nationality. 89th on the Sunday Times Rich List. He’s not on the list.

And yet …

On 12th October 2007 he was accused by Labour MP’s for being allowed to heavily fund the local Conservative organisations in marginal seats of his choosing. The Electoral Commission is investigating and changes to the rules are predicted.

And, again quite mysteriously, at that point all contacts with the BBC blogs, including that of said estimable etc Robinson go down.

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No Red, nor White,
just
Blue pencil

There are few things that bring Malcolm to the eye-bulging stage. This one did (but, as usual, there will be a longueur before he explains why).

He was re-reading bits of Tim Pat Coogan’s rightly-celebrated biography of Éamon de Valera, and found something that his previous reads had missed.

For St Patrick’s Day, 1943, de Valera made a broadcast on Radio Éireann.

As Coogan says:

This was the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde. Hyde was still President of the Twenty-six Counties but had suffered a stroke, and de Valera was active throughout the country in attending Gaelic League commemorations of various sorts. In between these activities, bending laws, signing death warrants and internment orders, and fending off Churchill, Hitler and Roosevelt, de Valera went on air …

Nothing in de Valera’s entire public career ever drew anything like the comment and ridicule that that speech, made in those circumstances elicited over the years.

a land … with cosy homesteads

The most celebrated passage of the speech is:

The Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youth, and the laughter of happy maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

Malcolm’s belief is well and truly beggared that de Valera could produce such fatuity. It was, after all, the historical moment of Stalingrad, the Montgomery-Rommel dance-of-death across North Africa, the Battle of the Atlantic, and Guadalcanal — for only a few instances. Irishmen, and Irish/Irish-American gore were being expended in at least three of those theatres.

De Valera, of course, also chose to ignore the emigration from Ireland to war-work in British factories. This amounted to 200,000 as the outflow was studiously recorded by the Irish Civil Service. Later, in 1953, when it suited him, he could just as easily rediscover concern for the economic and moral plight of the Irish working in England.

… the laughter of happy maidens

The “transhumance” (a word Malcolm recollects from his Geography classes, now half a century gone) of Irish men to jobs in England was well established. War-time brought something new: not just an increase in men leaving their families (who were now no longer permitted to accompany them), but the steady out-flow of Irish single women (de Valera’s “happy maidens”, indeed) — not to menial jobs and “service” any more, but to skilled employment in the blitzed cities of Britain:

in 1940 a total of 15,542 females were issued [exit] permits of whom 1,634 were going to employment in the field of nursing.

And this was the start of a continuing trend. Month by month, William Norton of the Labour Party seems to ask the same question, and receive a similar reply:

in March 1945 1,234 travel permits were issued to women.

On a previous occasion, Malcolm suggested there were “push” and “pull” factors at work here. The “pull” was obviously financial, though we should not dismiss the risks and personal circumstances that involved. The “push” was the climate back home, and a choice to liberate themselves, again at personal cost.

De Valera’s 1937 Constitution had awarded women a special place, which was “duties in the home”. Article 41:

… the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

What had been a commonplace for Kaiser Wilhelm II, by the time Hitler came to pronounce it to the National Socialist Women’s Organization in September 1934 it was a trifle shopsoiled. Yet, Kinder, Küche, Kirche remained de Valera’s view of a stable society. Or, in more recent unvarnished redneck:

I’ll tell you what we do up there when one of our women starts poking around in something she doesn’t know anything about. We get her an extra milk cow. If that don’t work, we give her a little more garden to tend. And if that’s not enough, we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot.

… the basis of a right living

On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and all European hell broke out. De Valera, next day, put two Bills through Dáil Éireann. The first amended the Constitution to allow an “Emergency”. The second was the Emergency Powers Bill. By the 3rd September both were enacted; and de Valera had awarded himself:

administrative power over everything in the state: censorship, military matters, supplies, agriculture and transport.

It is the first item on that list which might cause us to diagnose Malcolm for Graves’ disease.

..the life that God desires that men should live

De Valera’s St Patrick’s Day fantasy was so unworldly it belongs in the farthest reaches of rationality, and was severely dislocated from the blood and mud of 1943. It severely provoked the US Minister in Dublin, David Gray, who was Roosevelt’s personal appointee and friend.

Gray, as Cormac O’Grada recounts, was wholly frustrated by de Valera’s notion of Irish neutrality:

If Britain completely cuts off coal and gasoline, this place would be a disorganised and howling wilderness in three months … it probably would be a wise thing to do to explode this nationalistic dream of self-sufficiency.

The relationship between de Valera and Gray quickly became one of mutual antipathy. This may have inspired de Valera’s infamous visit to the German ministry, on 2nd May 1945, to express his condolence on Hitler’s death. De Valera did so on a personal decision, and categorically against the advice of his own officials, to acknowledge the “irreproachable” behaviour of German Minister Hempel throughout the war years “in marked contrast” to that of Gray.

On the other side, Gray could have become aware (via the British eavesdroppers) that in 1940 Hempel had cabled Berlin, relaying de Valera’s disapproval of Roosevelt’s re-election. For certain, Brian Girvin refers to a November 1940 letter by Gray to Roosevelt:

[Gray] thought it queer that not a single member of Fianna Fáil offered congratulations on the election outcome, while noting that the papal nuncio had predicted that Roosevelt would lose. All of this puzzled Gray and he speculated, there has been some dirty work at the crossroads.

… devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit

Now, to our frustration of any hope of him reaching his point, Malcolm diverts to the cinema.

By 1943 Hollywood was fully mobilised to winning the war. Casablanca was just one of the earlier, though certainly the greatest of these celluloid bloodless assaults on the foe. A few months after Casablanca came the deservedly-less-celebrated Good Luck, Mr Yates:

a teacher at a military school is derided by his students because he has not joined the military. The man is deeply disturbed by their ridicule and disrespect and so pleads with the draft-board to reconsider his “essential” status and allow him to join. He is allowed to enlist, but still, because he has a punctured ear-drum, is not allowed to join. Unable to face his students, the teacher gets a job at a shipyard, then deceives his students into believing that he is at war by having a buddy at boot camp forward their letters to him. Soon ugly rumors begin to circulate amongst the suspicious students. One is that their teacher went AWOL. The other is that he is really a Nazi spy. The students’ actions threaten to destroy the teacher’s new romance with a female welder. In the end everything comes out hunky-dory when the teacher proves himself a courageous hero during a shipyard fire.

The punch-line! (At last!)

The Emergency Powers Act, the fuel shortage, de Valera’s neutrality all came together in an explosion of Gray’s fury, in a letter to Roosevelt:

Meanwhile the Censor is loose again. The American flag was recently cut out of a film called Good Luck Mr. Yates … Meanwhile I am surrounded by mountains of turf, some two hundred and fifty thousand tons, all brought from the interior with American gasoline. If I go nuts can you blame me?

The Irish dared to censor Old Glory? No wonder Malcolm went pug-eyed.

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Blog-rolling

Nich Starling (who only deserves a nod from Malcolm because of the Norfolk connection) buffs up Iain Dale (a.k.a. Distrusted of Tonbridge belles).

Iain Dale swiftly repays the compliment.

Curious symmetry.

Note:
log·roll·ing (lôgrlng, lg-) n.

  1. The exchanging of political favors, especially the trading of influence …
  2. The exchanging of favors or praise, as among artists, critics, or academics.

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A selective approach

Malcolm was debating the issue of Northern Ireland’s secondary schools on Slugger O’Toole.

He was invited to explain his position.

The following is the gist of his response:

A cynic might argue that a school’s basic function is childminding, keeping the little sods off the street for much of the time, and trying to inculcate some basic manners and skills: in that order.

The original concept of public education (i.e. the justification why we should pay to educate others’ brats) amounted to:

1.1 health (education as a prophylactic);
1.2 the 3Rs (command of essential skills: numeracy; communication; decoding text);
1.3 preparing the individual with basic social skills to operate in the community and in the democracy;
1.4 vocational preparation (allowing the individual to participate usefully in the economy);
1.5 personal enrichment (allowing the individual to use leisure fruitfully); and
1.6 ethical and moral development (which, because of the Great Divide, is the prime criterion for Northern Ireland).

Again, this list could (absent episcopal meddling) be regarded as a descending hierarchy of desiderata.

In the 21st century it would translate into something like:

2.1 learning to acquire, sort and use relevant information. The knowledge is out there: what we need are the skills to acquire, analyse, apply and report what is relevant in any particular task—and then move on.
2.2 as part of that, we still need to grasp the “big ideas” as a frame-story for the above, to have an appreciation of basic concepts.
2.3 problem-solving (using 2.2 to facilitate 2.1); and construction (getting beyond simple cut-and-paste by extracting meaning from different, even contradictory sources).
2.4 enquiry: defining a problem, and applying discovered data, rather than relying on second-hand opinion or supposition (which might be relevant to the parallel argy-bargy between fundamentalists and evolutionists over the age of the Giant’s Causeway).
2.5 “personal, social and health education”: that whole area where society and its politicians suddenly decide “something must be done” and off-load it onto schools. This covers everything from AIDS and contraception to “proper manners” and, among the latest fads, Jamie Oliverism.

What is missing in that last list is any specific vocational element. Which raises two points:

3.1 This is where the great class divide shows up. The “middle-class” professional parent is, generally, more tolerant of the sprog postponing career decisions until 18+, or even to post-degree level. That, of course, is one of the benefits of disposable income. It is not so easily an option for a less-affluent, “working-class” parent.
3.2 How relevant is “vocational training” anyway, in a fast-changing economic environment, where typically we change jobs and need re-skilling repeatedly over a working life?

Now, to the specific problem of “selection”. In the spirit of “discovery learning” (2.3 and 2.4 above), Malcolm recommends Googling “academic selection”. The finding from such an experiment is that the term applies, almost exclusively,

4.1 to the current debate in Northern Ireland;
4.2 to factions, modernisers versus traditionalists, in the British Tory Party; and
4.3 to job specifications in higher education.

Where “selection” fails is:

5.1 It perpetuates an artificial class-division (see 3.1 above). Every study shows that the beneficiaries of a selective system, any selective process, are the affluent and professional. And, therefore, the élite Belfast (or provincial) grammar school is precisely what Malcolm would want for his sweet-peas. So much for self-interest versus the objective theory.
5.2 It asserts a higher status for the intellect over “skills”. However, the purpose of secondary education is not merely to service the needs of the “best” universities. The great failing of the British system is in fostering and developing technical education. This is evidenced all the way from G.B.Shaw in “Man and Superman”, over a century ago, through the aborted tripartite system envisaged by the 1944 Act, to the present demand for Polish plumbers.
5.3 Selection changed this society between the 1940s and 1960s, by facilitating the transition from an economy based on primary and secondary sectors (mining, farming, manufacture) to one dominated by the tertiary sector, and to the “meritocracy”. Good show. Now the wheel is turning again, and “the knowledge economy” (see 2.1 and 2.2 above) is not well served by pure academicism.
5.4 We are all “meritocrats” now, except the unfortunate “under-class” (which is another way of looking at what Malcolm suggested in 3.1 above). Education should not be a way of artificially maintaining that division (which, in any case, runs contrary to the principle in 1.1 above: unless we want to exist entirely in our gated community).
5.5 Any selection is automatically linked to an age-criterion (11+ or 14+) which pays no heed to individual personal development.

Malcolm’s bottom line? The smallest number of generally good (and – inevitably – large, and – preferably – secular) schools, offering individually and collectively a curriculum based on 2.1 to 2.5 above, but with flexibility and scope for personal development.

There is one caveat to all this, defined for Malcolm by a formidable lady, of certain years, as “culture sag”. He had the benefit of being taught by the war-time generation (his English teacher was an ex-fighter pilot, complete with handlebar, laid-back and inspirational, to whom Malcolm owes the ability to compose this). Malcolm’s generation of entrants to the staff-room were diverse, eclectic and committed. Today, the young graduate has a far wider choice of careers: teaching is by no means the most desirable. The result is that too many entrants to the profession lack that extra sparkle or indefinable X-factor (and, when they do have it, are not allowed to use it). Where they persist, it is likely to be in one of those “selective” schools which Malcolm has scorned herein.

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Malcolm admits to not having been
in Stroke City for a year.

That avoids the inevitable declaration of bias, genealogy, religion and politics: “Derry” or “Londonderry”? In the choice of the name one is absolutely exposed.

Malcolm has never taken it wholly seriously. He remembers, a third of a century ago, being member of a local government panel interviewing for a very senior appointment. One of the candidates had been employed in the Northern Irish civil service. Malcolm rose to the occasion. Over lunch and in the panel he pressed questions on the interviewee, except that, with each alternate sentence Malcolm switched from “Derry” to “Londonderry”. The candidate, a highly-intelligent man, merely grinned and followed the usage without a fault: had it been a set at tennis, it would have gone to the tie-break.

Derry native, Gerry Anderson (right) begat the alternative term, and it is available herefrom in his own dulcet tones.

Inevitably, any debate or discussion on the great Northern Irish divide, sooner or later, is sucked into the maelstrom of this single placename, from which there is no escape.

Once upon a pagan time there was an oak-grove (“doire” in Irish then and now). Patrick and the other Christian missionaries had the sense to adopt and adapt rather than try to erase and eliminate. So, Colm Cille, out of Tír Chonaill, great-great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, founded a church on the site of this pagan fane. And so the site became Doire Cholm Chille, Columba’s oak-grove.

Not much happened for a further millenium.

Then, in January 1600, Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, was appointed Lord Deputy. Malcolm may indiscreetly reveal in some future blog the “colourful” private life of Mountjoy (left). For the moment, though, it is salient only that Gloriana sent him to clean up the mess left by the Earl of Essex, and to deal with the O’Neill rebellion.

An essential part of Mountjoy’s strategy was to place a garrison on Lough Foyle, and thereby force a wedge between the O’Donnells and the O’Neills.

On 16 May 1600, Sir Henry Docwra (who must, therefore, appear in the genealogy of Malcolm’s alter ego) landed at Culmore, then advanced up the Foyle:

On the 22nd of May wee put the Army in order to marche, & leaving Captain Lancelott Atford at Culmore with 600 men, to make up the workes, we went to the Derry 4 myles of upon the River side, a place in manner of an Iland Comprehending within it 40 acres of Ground, wherein were the Ruines of an old Abbay, of a Bishopp’s houses, of two churches, & at one end of it an old Castle, the river called loughfoyle encompassing it all on one side, & a bogg most commonlie wett, & not easily passable except in two or three places dividing it from the maine land.

Obviously from this description, “the Derry” had hardly been a thriving community since Columba moved on to Iona.

In April 1609 Sir Thomas Phillips approached the City of London to plant the county of Coleraine, previously the territory of the O’Cahans. The City Companies drove a hard bargain with King James, and eventually secured the whole of Coleraine, plus a tranche of Tyrconnell, including the site of Derry: some half a million acres. That, in itself, was the insuperable problem: the liveried Companies could not drum up enough reliable Protestant tenants to occupy so vast a territory. However, it was now the City and County of Londonderry. It was also, self-evidently, geographically and psychologically a frontier outpost.

Apart from a nice line in le rat cuit à l’étouffée, life in Derry in the late 1680s was a trifle rough and tough. Derry was the largest town across Ulster, though perhaps little more than 2,000 in population (which makes the numbers quoted for siege-deaths somewhat suspect).

As sieges go, though, the 105 days seem to have been played quite genteelly. Hamilton, the attacker, allowed perhaps 10,000 bouches inutiles (another dubious number) to leave the city, which seems to deny the whole point of a siege. This changed when Rosen took over, held a round-up of Protestants and drove them under the walls, to be fed or starve as the defenders wished: this was more according to the rules, of course. The defenders responded by setting up a noose on the Double Bastion as a threat to any prisoners taken. Rosen then found he had a full-scale mutiny among his staff, and even James approved of his recall for “so cruel a contrivance”.

Samuel Molyneux kept a diary when he travelled through the north of Ireland in 1708. He found Derry:

a good, large, compact, well-built town … Since the siege … it does not seem to be a place of much business, riches or trade.

Jonathan Bardon continues from there:

Cut off from much of its natural hinterland by the Foyle, Derry did not alter its shape over a century after the siege, except for the growth of a modest Catholic suburb outside Bishop’s Gate. Visitors, nevertheless, found the city attractive. The English travel writer, Charles Bowden, noted that ‘the houses in general are remarkably well built, and the public buildings are very handsome structures … The church is one of the handsomest I beheld since I left the metropolis.’

And that was about it for a further century and a half. The city was at least reasonably prosperous on the back of shipping (especially emigrants off to become the “Scotch-Irish” of Appalachia) and cloth-making (the involvement of the London cloth-makers in the original plantation survived down to the famous shirt-factory). Derry and Carrickfergus were the only two towns in Ulster not to be pocket boroughs, and hold (by the standards of the time) “free” elections. We can see the legacy of commercial success in the fine houses that line Shipquay Street (right). Moreover:

Bishop Street, leading to the high south end of the walled city was less concerned with trade. Its development was less compact, with haphazard openings behind the street frontages to the Bishop’s house and garden, the free school and St Augustine’s Chapel of Ease on the west, and to the Cathedral and Church yard on the east. By 1788 the cathedral side of the street from the Diamond to Bishop’s Gate had been filled in completely. There are many images and descriptions of Derry during the 18th century. Most stress the picturesqueness of the place, not least, the philosopher George Berkeley – Dean of Derry from 1724 – 1732 who wrote:

‘The city of Derry is the most compact, regular, well built town that I have seen in the King’s Dominions, the town house, (no mean structure) stands in the midst of a square piazza from which there are four principal streets leading to as many gates. It is a walled town, and has walks all round on the walls planted with trees as in Padua.’

In 1768 Frederick Augustus Hervey assumed the Bishopric of Derry. He brought a new conception of the role of architecture to the city. He restored the cathedral, redesigned the Bishop’s Palace and erected many new churches throughout the diocese but perhaps his most influential gift to the city was the first bridge across the River Foyle, built in 1789.

That is the old city, even if “Padua” seems a fancy too far, one which is now lost after 90 years as the last outpost of the “United Kingdom” before Rockall (and notably so during WW2). The view from the ancient Walls is no longer a pretty one (left and top): a spew of modern housing reaching up the hillside to the Donegal horizon.

There are too many signs of neglect within the Walls: world-class old housing slipping into disuetude and cheap conversion, inappropriate in-filling, a general lack of care and investment, and hovering above it all that brutalism-on-steroids BT building.

For Malcolm, much of the pain came across in the song Phil Coulter wrote for Luke Kelly of the Dubliners. The Town I Loved So Well is a beautiful construction. The first three verses are plangently elegaic:

In my memory I will always see
The town that I have loved so well,
Where our school played ball by the gasyard wall;

And we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the
rain, running up the dark lane,
Past the Gaol and down behind the fountain.
Those were happy days in so many many ways,
In the town I loved so well.

In the early morn the shirt factory horn
Called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog,
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role,
Fed the children, and then trained the dog.
And when times got tough, there was just about enough;
But they saw it through without complaining:

For deep inside was a burning pride,
In the town I loved so well.


There was mu
sic there in the Derry air,
Like a language that we all could understand.
I remember the day that I earned my first pay
When I played in a small pick-up band.

There I spent my youth; and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me,
For I’d learned about life; and I found a wife
In the town I loved so well

So far, so good. But this is no ballad to be let anywhere near your average Oirish pub singer. After the instrumental break, the iron enters the soul of the last two verses:

But when I returned, how my eyes have burned
To see how a town could be brought to its knees —
By the armoured cars, and the bombed-out bars,
And the gas that
hangs on to every breeze.
Now the army’s installed by that old gasyard wall,
And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher.
With their tanks and their guns, — oh my God! what have they done?
To the town I loved so well.

Now the music’s gone; but they carry on
For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken.
They will not forget; but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again.
For what’s done is done; and what’s won is won;
And what’s lo
st is lost and gone forever.
I can only pray for a bright brand-new day,
In the town I loved so well.

Des Geraghty’s “memoir” of Luke Kelly says much of it:

Like all masterpieces, that song and its singer had universal appeal. Little else did as the ’70s unrolled and circumstances became increasingly complex. Daily life in Northern Ireland began to ring with the calamitous echo of Clarence Mangan’s apocalyptic translation of Róisín Dubh – ‘O! The Erne shall run red with redundance of blood’ …

The days when The Dubliners could bring huge audiences of Catholics, Protestants and dissenters together in Belfast’s King’s Hall to join in choruses of both Orange and Green songs were suddenly gone – just as, decisively, were the times when the Miami Showband brought the young on to the same dance floor, far from the bigotry and tribalism of the older generations.

These days there is something of Coulter’s brand-new day in Derry. Despite the curious cross-sectarian factional alliance, inevitably hostile because that is what both sides do so well, the Eglinton Airport is becoming a significant local success. The rail link to Belfast has been saved; may be up-graded (the main requirement is a passing loop at Ballykelly, say £10M or the price of a couple of good barristers), and might — just might — be restored south of Derry. Once again, there is a bustle for some of the week with new shopping centres. Foyleside brooks to become a new place for waterside apartment living. The army barracks are being redeveloped for private housing.

The fissures remain, however. The Protestant population of the west-bank City side is now down to just 500 (from some 18,000 in 1969). Not surprisingly, the ultras reach for hyperboles like “ethnic cleansing” (as is equally alleged, by the other side, for Carrickfergus, Larne and East Antrim).

OK, says Mr Everyman to Malcolm, we’ve walked the Walls, drunk deep in Becketts and Tracys, seen the murals … what’s left?

Malcolm has one suggestion: get inside the Tudoresque red-sandstone Guildhall. You are in for a surprise. Provided you can inveigle yourself past the Jobsworth on duty, you’ll get to see the Edwardian glazing: indeed, it’s so vivid it’ll come to see you.

Every picture tells a story: this must be the finest assembly of (restored) early-twentieth century municipal glasswork around. It’s certainly not chi-chi Tiffany; it’s not even pretty; but — by God and King George! — it is impressive. Those worthy burghers certainly got their money’s worth of pre-technicolor immortality.

And Malcolm ventures one more observation: because by “Derry” standards it’s so politically-incorrect, they don’t publicize it. So you’ll probably be the only one there to see it.

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Filed under City of Derry, Northern Ireland, River Foyle