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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear