What can memorials mean when history is so raw?
With his Weeping Window cascading down the Ulster Museum, Paul Cummins has freed the poppy from its symbolic weight
Paul Cummins’s Weeping Window
The first I knew that Paul Cummins’s Weeping Window was coming to Belfast was when I got a phone call from the Ulster Museum, from whose window, or rather roof, the sculpture’s 5,800 poppies were to weep, asking me if I would take part in one of their contextualising talks and seminars: “Signs of the Times: Symbols and their Multiple Meanings”.
If you are doing anything in Belfast with poppies, even if they are presented as a work of art, it’s usually a good idea to have contextualising talks and seminars.
A couple of hours after that call I was washing my hands in the bathroom at home when I noticed a little enamel badge on the sink, next to the tap. The badge is normally on the breast pocket of my 16-year-old daughter’s corduroy jacket. It is in the shape of an acoustic guitar around the body of which are written the words “this machine kills fascists” and is modelled on a guitar belonging to the American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie, who died 50 years ago last autumn.
At other times in his life Guthrie had the phrase printed and stuck on to his guitar, but in its most famous iteration it is painted, freehand, in a mix of upper and lower case letters (upper case A in machine, lower case a in fascists), as it is, or as it is reproduced, on my daughter’s badge.
There is to my knowledge only one photograph of that particular guitar. Woody stares straight down the camera, hair standing up from his forehead, a faint jet of cigarette smoke blurring his lips, and a harmonica on a wire frame round his neck. The guitar is slung low across the front of his body, headstock pointing up at a 45-degree angle. The veneer on the guitar is cracked, the strings tied to the bridge rather than pegged. If you had asked me until recently where it was taken I would have said nowhere in particular – the background is bleached out. Guthrie is a man alone. He is Hobo Woody, the Oklahoma native who rode the rails in the US in the depression years of the 1930s in search of work, experiences that he later drew on – I was going to change that to “wrote on”, but he drew little pictures too – in the memoir Bound for Glory.
In the original photograph, which I only saw a couple of months ago, there are people standing behind him chatting, bottles of beer in hand. I’m guessing, from the decor and the bar table in the right of frame (a woman seated at it searches in her bag for money or cigarettes), a Greenwich Village club rather than a house party, which makes me think it must be some time in the early 1940s when Guthrie moved to New York after the release of his first record, Dust Bowl Ballads. The full picture locates him in space and time, the cut-out abstracts him, makes him, every bit as much as the guitar he is holding, a vessel for meaning.
My daughter grew up with Woody Guthrie records being played and his songs being sung. This Land is my Land is one of the few songs her father can play halfway tunefully on his own guitar, which otherwise merits the legend “This machine frightens felines”, or at least disturbs their slumber.
Expression of defiance
That guitar badge, though, is more than a symbol of my daughter’s affection for the man and his music. It is a hand-to-wood-to-enamel communication reaching down through the generations, an expression of defiance made more urgent by the terror attacks – at the Bataclan in Paris, at the Manchester Arena in the UK – that have punctuated her teenage years. Attacks that seemed as though they were directed not just against places of public resort but at the very idea of people – young people in particular – coming together, losing themselves in music. In the short term at least, they had the opposite effect of bringing thousands of people on to the streets of Paris and Manchester. Two weeks before the One Love memorial concert at the Old Trafford cricket ground at the start of June, the crowds on the streets of Manchester – following the lead of one woman’s voice – had joined in singing Don’t Look Back in Anger, prompted perhaps by some of the less forgiving responses in the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack. I didn’t hear about it until long after the fact, but I believe the DJ Liz Kershaw tweeted words to the effect that something needed to be done. What I did hear, the weekend after the explosion, was her talking movingly on BBC 6 Music about her first gig, The Faces, featuring Rod Stewart, in Manchester, when she was 13. Everything in her life, she said, flowed from that night.
Thirteen – as well as being the title of a song by Big Star, one of the most beautiful hymns to teendom ever recorded – was the age at which I started buying LPs.
How strange to think that just a couple of years ago I would have had to pause there to explain to younger readers what LPs were.
I was already a singles veteran, already prone to the song crushes and obsessions that have followed me from my teens into my 50s. I once swapped a coveted copy of Blockbuster by the Sweet, not for a record, but for information – any information – about 10cc. We may have brought vinyl back from the brink, but it’s harder at this remove to recall a world where you would have to listen to the radio all day, sometimes all week, in hopes of hearing a record you liked; where you might see a band once on Top of the Pops on TV as their record rose up the charts, only for it to fall the next week, or rather fortnight – because you were never on Top of the Pops two weeks in a row unless you were number one – and for the band to disappear from view until the next single. If there was a next single.
10cc, at the beginning of the year I turned 13, released a single called The Worst Band in the World – a great record, as it happens, but perhaps not a great title for persuading people to part with their money, which not many people did. I didn’t buy it, even though, thanks to that Blockbuster swap, I knew their names now: I mean, it was practically personal. The record completely failed to chart.
By summer 1975, however, they were not only back in the charts but at the very top of them: I’m Not in Love, released in May, went to number one in the last week of June and stayed there for two weeks. For my 14th birthday on August 9th, I got a copy of the album from which it was taken, The Original Soundtrack.
Now that two of their own had been killed, the rest of the gang opened fire on the Miami Showband members lined up at the side of the road
In between times, on July 31st, 1975 the Miami Showband, one of Ireland’s most popular live acts, were driving in a minibus along the main Belfast to Dublin road after a gig in Banbridge, Co Down, when they were stopped at a roadblock road by men in army uniform.
Roadblocks would have been pretty common occurrences in those years, at all times of the night and day. The five band members lined up, as ordered, at the side of the road, backs to the minibus. Apparently the men in uniform were chatty, not at all unpleasant. The band’s lead guitarist, Stephen Travers, however, hearing the soldiers, as he presumed them to be, open the back of the minibus and go inside, got worried that they would damage his guitar, which was in his words “very precious”. (I am reminded of a moment in Bound For Glory, when a fellow hobo gives Woody Guthrie his shirt to protect his “music box” from the rain.) When Travers turned around to ask the men to be careful, one of them pushed him and punched him in the back. A moment later there was an explosion and the man who had pushed Travers and another uniformed man were killed outright. The army patrol was in fact an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gang, although several among them were also serving members of the Ulster Defence Regiment. What they had been doing in the back of the minibus was not searching, but leaving a bomb, the idea apparently being that it would go off somewhere further down the road, over the Border possibly, killing everyone on board and making it look to the world – which would have had no knowledge at all of the fake roadblock – as though the Miami Showband were themselves terrorists, transporting or perhaps even preparing bombs in their bus.
The premature explosion put paid to that. Now that two of their own had been killed, the rest of the gang opened fire on the band members lined up at the side of the road. Travers had a near miraculous escape, having been blasted into a ditch by the explosion. Another band member also survived, but the remaining three were killed, including lead singer Fran O’Toole who was shot 22 times in the face.
A fortnight after the attack, the IRA shot and killed a man called Norman Kerr who operated a mobile disco that, on the night he died, had been at the Carrick Bar in Armagh. He had just loaded his equipment into his van when the gunmen struck. It is almost an insult to the memory of the Miami Showband that the IRA might have murdered another human being in retaliation, but that would seem to have been part of the rationale. Kerr had been a friend of one of the Miami Showband killers, Harris Boyle, and in the climate of the times that might have sufficed to make him, in that much abused term, a legitimate target. You do wonder, though, whether the mobile disco didn’t give his killing, in the eyes of the men who carried it out, an extra associative twist.
And there is another, earlier 1970s song in my head as I write those words, Don McLean’s American Pie, with its line about the day the music died. In Northern Ireland it wasn’t a single day and the music never did actually die – any more than it did in the US after the death of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens (which McLean was alluding to) – but there was throughout the years of the Troubles a strain it often seemed of spitefulness, a desire to punish people for wanting to have a good time, to lose themselves in company, in drink, in music.
To Norman Kerr and Fran O’Toole – to Brian McCoy and Anthony Geraghty, the other murdered Miami Showband musicians – must be added the names of the scores of people murdered while out socialising, or making their way home after socialising. To quote the heartbroken widower of Moira Duddy, one of the seven people murdered in the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel in October 1993 while they waited for a country and western band to take the stage, “We went out on a Saturday night for a wee dance and they blew her to bits”.
I am trying to think my way back to the summer of the Miami Showband massacre, the summer of 1975. My grandparents were over visiting from Canada. I nicked a couple of my grandpa’s Rothman’s King Size and kickstarted my 20-year smoking career. A girl I fancied at school was writing me occasional letters from somewhere outside Newcastle where she was spending the summer with her family while I listened to the Original Soundtrack and moped.
The estate I grew up in had once been mixed, was by the mid-70s a little more undiluted. All the trappings – the graffiti, the flags, the coloured kerbstones – marked it out as more than Protestant: loyalist.
In relation to the Miami Showband killings, however, all I can remember is what the journalist Peter Taylor who interviewed Travers many years afterwards refers to as “universal condemnation”. And as for the possibility of there being a memorial to the killers . . . that would have been, in the summer of 1975, absolutely unthinkable.
But four decades on there is one, in east Belfast, to the two men who died when their own bomb went off in the Miami Showband’s minibus: “In Solemn Remembrance we salute the brave men of Ulster” reads the inscription above. “Without favour or reward they fought militant republicanism on its own terms. Their courage dedication and sacrifice we will remember for evermore.”
And every November wreaths of poppies are laid before it.
It may appear to us that the poppy has put down long roots, but 100 years is, historically speaking, a snap of the fingers
The year 2018, as well being the centenary of the end of the first World War, and therefore the end of the “Poppies” tour, is also the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which is in itself a symbol (even the fact that the vast majority of us refer to it as the Good Friday rather than Belfast Agreement), of what people, or peoples, who have been in conflict for decades can achieve through dialogue, never mind that the seeds of future impasses may have been sown into – or between – its lines.
And do I wonder whether the Two Main Parties in the North, as we now refer to the DUP and Sinn Féin, are waiting for the turn of the year and the return of the world’s attention to patch up the latest difficulty of their own making and receive more pats on the back, more Historic Day medals to hang round their necks?
Oh, I do. I really, really do.
With or without a breakout of accord, however, we will, I am sure, be invited to reassess, take the measure of distances travelled. Tourism will be mentioned (one million visitors in the first half of 2017); hotels will be mentioned, every week, it seems, a new one (I have reviewed a couple of them myself); the film industry; the tech companies; and the £1 billion property investment target for the city of Belfast.
These are all good things.
I return, though to that memorial, naming the men involved in the Miami Showband massacre and to the other similar memorials in which not just Belfast but the whole of Northern Ireland abounds.
Those memorials themselves have become for me a symbol not so much of the accommodations that must be made in the move away from violence, as of the fact that we have, in reality, no way of knowing, much less controlling, here or anywhere else, how people of the future will look back on the events of our present, their past: in anger, in bafflement, in sneaking regard, in open adulation, or in abhorrence still of the deeds, but simple human remembrance of the doers.
Who knows what accommodations people in cities other than Belfast will have to reach in the decades ahead?
Who knows where people 40 years from now will be laying their wreaths, or what leaves and flowers will go into their making.
Next year is also the centenary of the first appearance of the memorial poppy, fashioned from silk by an American professor, Moina Michael, who was inspired by John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields.
It may appear to us that the poppy has put down long roots, but 100 years is, historically speaking, a snap of the fingers.
The meaning of symbols can change with time, or they can from overuse be drained of meaning – meaningfulness – entirely.
A quick Google search of “This Machine Kills Fascists” tells me it is now possible to buy This Machine Kills Fascists mugs, This Machine Kills Fascists skateboards, This Machine Kills Fascists baseball caps and even This Machine Kills Fascists babygros and onesies
At the start of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel, The Commitments, one of the characters, Liam Foster, aka Outspan, is trying to pick a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker off a guitar belonging to his brother. The only thing it symbolises to Outspan is that his brother is “an awful hippy”.
Woody Guthrie himself was – if not a hippy before the term was coined – certainly a romantic, and not above a bit of self-mythologising. There is a passage towards the end of Bound For Glory: the United States has entered the war in the wake of Pearl Harbour, and a mob is attacking a Japanese-owned grocery store, breaking windows and threatening to tear the place apart, their justification being that the man who owned it told a woman who was buying a can of corn that when Japan took over she would be working for him and the corn would cost whatever he wanted to charge. A companion of Guthrie’s calls this out for a lie. “Two years ago I heard this same tale, word for word,” he says. Another crowd gathers around Guthrie and his companion, facing the looters. They start to sing, We Shall Not Be Moved.
“Our singing,” Guthrie writes, “hit the mob of rioters like a cyclone tearing into a haystack.”
I will take his word for it that the incident unfolded exactly as he writes it, but even if the rioters weren’t literally blown away by the singing, the tableau is symbolically attractive. Fake news, as we might describe it today, and hatred, drowned out by song. You wonder whether it mattered what they were singing, whether – to pluck a song out of the 1940s US charts – Tommy Dorsey’s Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy) sung with enough gusto would have done the trick, whether the power lay in the guitar, as it were, not the slogan.
In an idle moment while writing this I picked up an Observer magazine, which carried an interview with an American singer-songwriter of more recent vintage, Beck, who, it turns out, shares a manager with the Eagles of Death Metal, the band who were playing in the Bataclan when it was attacked on November 13th, 2015. In the interview Beck reflects on the event and by extension on the purpose of his – call it art, call it craft, call it simply profession. “It’s important,” he concludes, “not to take for granted these moments [when] we can play music and come together”.
Beck, by the way, has two stickers on a guitar he often uses, a black and white Danelectro – one sticker, with a naked man, viewed from behind, framed by a five-pointed star, says Rush, as in the Canadian band, the other reads “I [heart] Country Music” – although a fan forum I was looking on – because that’s work too you know, you bet your sweet life it is – tells me that Beck has recently started covering up both these stickers with black tape when he plays live.
Maybe Rush objected to the – I had assumed ironic – association. Maybe Beck stopped [hearting] country music.
Maybe it was too damned serious.
“Sometimes what it needs,” he says in that interview I read, “is something throwaway. . . There’s power in a song being non-profound, throwaway. These songs can have a sort of magic. They can exist beyond the artist, beyond the genre, beyond the era.”
And then, writes the interviewer, Tom Lamont, he “raises his hand as if he’s launching a balloon. ‘They float!’”
Anything less likely to float than 5,800 ceramic poppies on steel stems you might be hard pressed to imagine, but the word that came most often to mind was lightness
At which point my thoughts turned again to the Weeping Window.
Anything less throwaway or less likely to float than 5,800 ceramic poppies on steel stems you might be hard pressed to imagine, but as I looked – and looked and looked again – at the sculpture cascading down the face of the Ulster Museum, spreading across the concrete steps, the word that came most often to mind was lightness, as though Paul Cummins had freed the poppy as a genus from the weight it has had to carry as two flattened layers of red paper on a green plastic stem, a thing that Stood For Something to be contested or embraced or indeed disgraced.
What they reminded me of most in all their hyper-reality was the field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her companions, under the spell of the Wicked Witch of the West (as though the poppies weren’t narcotic enough), almost succumb to sleep – perhaps an eternity of it – until Glinda the Good Witch of the North magics up some snow to wake them.
At which point, music starts and a choir begins to sing:
“You’re out of the woods/ You’re out of the dark/ You’re out of the night./ Step into the sun, step into the light.”
It’s barely half a minute long, less a song than an idea sung, though it has a title, which happens to be the same as the name of the group singing. It’s called – they are called – Optimistic Voices.
“Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place/On the face of the earth or the sky,” they sing, “Hold on to your breath, hold on to your heart, hold on to your hope, march up to the gate and bid it open . . .”
There’s a line to make you want link arms with the person (or the lion and tinman) either side of you. “Hold on to your breath, hold on to your heart, hold on to your hope . . .”
The night before the Signs of the Times seminar I asked my daughter if she would paint those words on the body of my guitar. I brought it with me to the Ulster Museum in its never-before-used gig bag. I took it out at the conclusion of my talk.
I thought about playing it – This Land is My Land, perhaps, repurposed for Belfast (“From Narrowwater to the old Queen’s Island”) – but frankly in my hands it was always likely to be more eloquent as a symbol than an instrument.
My This Machine Kills Fascists, my Don’t Look Back in Anger – my mantra for how to proceed on the far side of all these centenaries and anniversaries and these moments that we are living through that would seek to demoralise and divide us.
And – all right – my protection against Outspan nicking my guitar.
Glenn Patterson’s latest novel is Gull (published by Head of Zeus)