When punk rock ruled over Ulster

Reviewed: Good Vibrations.

Good Vibrations tells three stories. One is the story of Terri Hooley, the one-eyed “godfather of Irish punk” who set about the restoration of Belfast’s youth culture in the early 1970s. In the film, Hooley (Richard Dormer) opens a record shop, founds a label, struggles with money and neglects his pregnant wife, played by Jodie Whittaker. He is determined to live by his instincts and forget about The Troubles. In the process he introduces the world to Ulster’s finest punk bands - Rudi, The Outcasts and The Undertones - and gives John Peel his favourite song: “Teenage Kicks”.

And this is the second story: the music born out of that moment, how it attempted to reanimate a static generation with little to hope for. The film captures the energy magnificently. There is a scene in which Hooley, who has so far been peddling folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, follows a safety-pinned adolescent to a gig in a working men’s club, and finally gets punk. It’s blissful. One of my biggest movie bugbears is the aggressive fading-out of background noise and fading-in of studio silence perceptible before a musical number. Not here. The soundtrack weaves naturally and ceaselessly into the plot, and the loudness, shock and presence of the band in the room will be recognisable to anyone who’s ever been to a DIY gig in a function room or church hall. Hooley's damascene awakening is euphoric.

The film possesses the qualities of an aging rocker’s scrapbook. Archive footage, annotation and Gondry-esque interludes patch together the scene building montages and intimate biographical moments between Hooley and his family. Dylan Moran makes an appearance (little more than a cameo, though worth every second) as a weary landlord whose empty bar is festooned in mesh and surveillance equipment. It demands a few poetic liscences, quick jumps through time, anachronistic references and a slightly triumphalist ending - but all are forgivable. Above all it is hilarious, sincere and heartfelt.

The third story that the movie tells, it's not-so-hidden backdrop, is one we know all too well: the segregation, poverty, violence and vigilantism that fragmented Northern Ireland from the 1960s on. Hooley stares them all down, as the man who inspired the film continues to do. In October last year the real Terri Hooley (who appears briefly in the film as an out of tune accordionist) was attacked while out walking his dog. “Fenian lover,” they scowled at him. “You're a disgrace to the Protestant community.” Good Vibrations opens Belfast up to a new point of view. It refuses any notion of “sides”. The bars, streets and venues are not seen looking in, as in the news, but from the inside looking out.

Behold! Richard Dormer and Michael Colgan in Good Vibrations. Photo: BBC.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times