Subscriber OnlyBooks

Bruised, Not Broken: Deft portrayal of Phil Coulter’s life

Book review: Culture and politics merge in compelling autobiography

Bruised, Not Broken
Bruised, Not Broken
Author: Phil Coulter
ISBN-13: 978-0717184132
Publisher: Gill
Guideline Price: €19.99

Early in 1967, an impecunious young Derry songwriter was working in his attic office in London’s West End. Phil Coulter was then almost 25 years old, and still a rookie: the music business, then as now, was a tough environment, and Coulter was on a steep learning curve.

He and his writing partner Bill Martin had decided to submit to the BBC’s Song for Europe, which selected the United Kingdom’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Their song was Puppet on a String, sung by Sandie Shaw – and Coulter was aiming for a “fairground vibe”, provided by a bassoon. Martin was not pleased: “A bassoon? What’s a f*cking bassoon?” But Coulter had his way: the bassoon stayed, the song was selected as the UK entry – and at the Eurovision at the Hofburg in Vienna (“a far cry from St Columb’s Hall in Derry”, notes Coulter), it triumphed.

The aftermath of such success is described wryly by Coulter in Bruised, Not Broken: his career gained no immediate traction, and he was soon on his uppers once again. Back home, meanwhile, the gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation ungraciously offered Coulter a civic reception at Derry’s Guildhall, the mayor’s Anglia fetching the hero of the hour from his parents’ home in central Derry for a glass of sherry and some uncomfortable chit-chat with the city’s unionist councillors.


Such a confluence of culture and politics captures the texture of this deft autobiography and of Coulter’s life, which has been shaped by global and intensely local influences. He was a member of that first cohort able to profit from the British educational reforms of the 1940s: specifically, to enjoy a free grammar-school education at St Columb’s College; to become part of a generation that included John Hume, Seamus Heaney and others; and to absorb – for life – the school’s rigorous work ethic.

Coulter illuminates finely the grain of life in the Catholic Derry of those days: the hourly injustices and humiliations meted out by a seemingly eternal unionist administration at Stormont; and the calamitous economic impact of a still-new border snaking a few miles from Derry city centre – but also the advantages of life in a tightly-knit family and community.

Economic security

He is also aware of the relative comforts afforded to him: his father was that rare creature, a Catholic member of the RUC; and the family owned their house, which even boasted an inside toilet. A certain economic security underpinned the young Coulter’s life – something that could not be said of virtually all of his peers.

This book is most compelling when it returns – as it does repeatedly – to these roots: to the family and wider civic dynamics which shaped Coulter’s life; and to the thread of politics which forms an essential part of the story.

Such a context provides no end of arresting vignettes: watching in 1970 as internment without trial is introduced violently in Derry mere weeks after Dana’s Eurovision win with All Kinds of Everything, a song re-engineered by Coulter to provide a little “fairy dust”; sheltering in 1979, amid smoke and screaming, under the Steinway piano he had been about to play as a bomb explodes against the walls of the Guildhall – and the list goes on.

This political awareness, however, renders even more perplexing Coulter’s decision to visit apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. He was roundly criticised at the time; and his defence of his choices introduces one of the few jarring notes in the book.

His life experiences, of course, produced The Town I Loved So Well, the song of love and lament for which Coulter will always be best known; and the complex ambivalence with which he regards his home place will be recognisable to any exile and migrant. He writes with moving honesty too of his struggle to accept his son Paul, who was born in 1965 with Down syndrome: and his description offers a salutary reminder of how society and attitudes have since changed.

Bruised, Not Broken is less compelling when it dwells on the detailed mass of Coulter’s highly successful career in music – but here too, his evolution from singer-songwriter to performer is described feelingly.

And there are delightfully catty glimpses of a starry world: as in 2001 when Madonna, having failed for the third time to win a Grammy, finally drops her fixed smile, and stalks from the hall in rage: “the last time I had seen adults behaving like spoiled children,” remarks Coulter, “was closer to home, in Stormont.”

Coulter observes that he is not “the most talented man in the country”, ascribing his success just as much to tenacity, timing and work ethic. The fact remains, however, that it is no mean feat to sustain for six decades a career in the entertainment industry – and Coulter’s memoir sets this career satisfyingly in the broadest possible context.

Neil Hegarty

Neil Hegarty, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and biographer