not a member? click here to sign up
Oh Dear Lord
Lord Laird’s chequered past and unsavoury acquaintances make his criticism of Phil Flynn somewhat strange. Plus: Our columnist recalls a difficult meeting with Van Morrison and explores the origins of the singer’s legendary pugnacity.
Eamonn McCann, 10 Jun 2005
I see that my old pal Phil Flynn is taking stick from the lower echelons of the upper classes. I’d offer him solidarity, but I gather he’d rather not be reminded.
Phil is under pressure from no more a person that Lord Laird of Artigarvin, who has spoken at Westminster and written to Bertie Ahern asking how come a leading associate of Sinn Fein was nominated by the Government to the board of Bank of Scotland (Ireland). Phil’s position in the banking world had become somewhat fraught earlier this year after he was questioned by gardai investigating an alleged multi-million pound IRA money-laundering operation.
I first knew Phil in London in the 1960s when the pair of us and Christy Moore were members of the first Irish Trotskyist organisation, the Irish Workers’ Group. I like to think that Christy and myself haven’t strayed too far since from the path of revolutionary righteousness. But there were indications even then that Phil was on a different trajectory. He was always neatly dressed on paper sales and carried a comb.
Funnily enough, if you can see the funny side, I crossed paths with Lord Laird in our younger days, too. Back in the ‘60s, he was John Laird, an articulate and approachable Young Unionist from Sandy Row. By 1972, he’d become MP for the area. On January 24th 1972, he was one of two Stormont MPs who brought the government of Brian Faulkner to the point of collapse by resigning the Unionist whip, demanding that the British Army take tougher action against civil rights marches and the Bogside no-go area. Six days later came Bloody Sunday, in which 14 civil rights marchers were massacred by paratroopers in the Bogside. Hardly Laird’s fault. But he’d certainly contributed to the pressure.
Anyway, the reason Laird is now in a position to raise questions about Phil’s bona fides is that he re-emerged into prominence a few years ago as the North’s most vociferous advocate of Ulster Scots, and was ennobled after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, which recognised Ulster Scots as a fully-formed language so as to balance recognition of Irish. Lord Laird became head of one of the institutions established under the Agreement, the Ulster Scots Agency. Stolid former civil servant and staunch Unionist Stan Mallon was appointed CEO.
Within the agency, officials were, naturally, encouraged to use what Ulster Scots they had. A Northern adaptation of the cupla focal. The Ulster Scots for Lord is Laird. Thus, in agency communications, Lord Laird was Laird Laird.
Three years ago, Stan was arrested in Chicago while en route to Washington to represent the Agency at the Paddy’s Day White House shenanigans. He was sentenced to two years, increased to four on appeal, for having used the internet prior to travelling to try to lure a 14-year-old girl into having sex with him. The supposed 14-year-old turned out to be an undercover Chicago cop. A search of Stan’s home back in Co. Down yielded vast quantities of what’s sometimes coyly called “kiddie porn.”
Lord Laird was dumbfounded to discover his CEO’s hidden life, and declined to provide the court with a character testimonial or, according to Mallon, to help his cornered colleague in any way. And thus Stan’s final, futile, impassioned plea to his former boss to appear at his appeal: “Laird Laird, why have you forsaken me?”.
Ambled along to meet Johnny Rogan at the Verbal Arts Centre the other night, where he was giving a talk and reading passages from his almost-definitive Morrison biog No Surrender. First question came from a philanthropic idealist of remarkable innocence at the back of the hall who suggested that maybe Van wasn’t a grumpy bollix after all, but, “suffers for his art.”
Maybe he does. What’s for certain is that I’ve suffered for it.
There was the lunch at the Westbury conducting an interview for this journal. Or, rather, there was me sitting across a table watching Morrison dribbling slithery coleslaw down his chin onto his bib and insulting me and hotpress and all who sail in her. “That’s a stupid fucking question. Did fucking Stokes tell you to ask that fucking stupid question. I‘m not fucking answering that“
You get the picture.
His final spasm of boorishness came in the form of an observation that: “I’m not fucking here to answer questions.“
Eventually, I upped and swept out in what I desperately hoped was a flurry of dignity.
Outside, I had the pleasure of telling him to fuck off when, propelled by his record label’s publicist, he came running to plead with me to come back. But by this stage, I was galloping towards Stephen’s Green, feeling deeply humiliated, albeit mounted on a high horse.
Then there was the night in Bad Bob’s after a Stadium gig when, in a moment of madness, mistaking a grimace for a grin, I asked him whether, as a gesture towards political correctness, he might like henceforth to be known as Van the Person. The scowl remained affixed to his face by rawl plugs for the rest of the night.
Van’s manager at the time, Paul Charles, accosted me at the tail-end of the evening with an accusation that I had “ruined Van’s whole night.”
It was only a joke, I pleaded. “Are ye mad?” thundered the Magherafelt man, aghast. “A joke? Van-doesn’t-do-jokes.” You’d never guess.
But back to No Surrender. Rogan’s thesis – that Morrison’s surly demeanour is rooted in a bloody-mindedness which owes more to Lambegs than Leadbelly – has been derided in some otherwise glowing reviews. But I think he‘s onto something. It’s not the whole story, but Morrison’s sensibility has always seemed to me distinctively Northern Protestant. Or at least encased in Northern Protestantism. His free-ranging imagination operates within a closed circle of dour certainties. This, possibly, is why his frustration sometimes seems greatest when he’s in full flight. I’ve had grief from this aspect of Morrison, too.
I once let rip at the junior Paisley on a BBC NI “arts” programme for suggesting that Orange marches represented “the essential culture” of the Protestant people. What about Van Morison, George Best and Hurricane Higgins?, I put in, products of Protestant working-class Belfast whose genius could make souls of people anywhere skip. Did they not form part of “Protestant culture?“ Did their Belfast upbringing contribute not at all to their formation as artists?
Did their clumsiness with celebrity and the fitfulness of their genius’s expression not reflect their community’s awkwardness in relating to the wider world? If Morrison were a Catholic, I suggested, there’d be an annual summer school in west Belfast exploring such questions.
A few days later in the Village area of Belfast, I bumped into David Ervine. “You’ve gone right down in my estimation,” he growled, alleging that I’d insulted the entire Protestant population. “There’s more to us than pop music, snooker and football.”
In vain did I protest that to associate any community with Morrison, Best and Higgins was scarcely belittling. More a glowing testimonial. But Ervine would have none of it. Which confirmed my view about the awkwardness of his community in relating to the wider world, and about the source of Morrison‘s surliness.