John Walsh: Tales Of The City

'It's bleak and vicious, full of random shootings, ambushes, reprisals and beatings'
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Ken Loach's new film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, has just had its premiere in Cannes, and has raised a whirlwind of criticism for its depiction of Ireland during the civil war of 1921-1922. It's not surprising. Some scenes, featuring the brutality of the (English) Black & Tan soldiery, their torture of suspects (fingernails, pliers, you really don't want to know) and violence towards women, come across like a recruiting campaign for the IRA.

The small gang of volunteers who actually became first generation IRA members are brave, sporty, loyal, thoughtful, adorably disputatious and (since they include the unfeasibly blue-eyed Cillian Murphy) frightfully handsome. Viewers have complained that the film is anti-British and, yes, it does weigh the scales against the representatives of Blighty, finding them to be trigger-happy bastards. It's hardly a barrel of laughs for any nationality, though. It's bleak and vicious, full of random shootings, ambushes, reprisals and beatings; it's stiff with political rhetoric and train drivers spouting Bakunin and (I think) Kropotkin; and the ending is so tragic that two ladies beside me at the screening snuffled into their Kleenexes.

So why do I have nothing but praise for Mr Loach's new movie? Because it's a brilliant work of emotional history, by which I mean it makes sense at last of the wash of feelings that has surged for nearly a century in Irish people of my father's generation and his father's before him.

I grew up hearing all about the Easter Rising (my dad was born in 1916), and the disaffected populace who gradually realised that independence was worth fighting, who voted for Dail Eireann in 1918. I heard from relatives about the Black & Tans who were sent over from England as reinforcements of the Royal Irish Constabulary (I remember the often-repeated phrase, "They were the lowest scum that could be found in English prisons and were sent over to do whatever it took.") I learnt about the civil war - in which supporters of the new Irish Free State were deemed to have sold out to the old enemy - and I remember the number of times someone said that "brother fought against brother" and the way tears would fill the eyes of whichever Irish uncle was telling me about it.

The skill ofThe Wind is to dramatise all these tropes of Irish nationalism just as they've been dramatised in the Irish folk memory since 1920. Whatever the truth of details, this, you feel, is the narrative that's been playing in my ancestors' heads, from the days when I'd visit Ireland in short trousers on family summer holidays and be shown the beehive where my great-aunt once hid a Service revolver (an offence punishable by instant death) from the marauding Tans. I don't care what anarcho-syndicalist agenda Mr Loach may be trying subliminally to inject into audiences with his film; I just know that he makes clear the emotional landscape of Irish nationalism, with its shamrock meadows and its heather blazing.

* Since the first record I ever bought was Cilla Black singing "Anyone Who Had a Heart" I'm in no position to bitch about anyone else's musical taste. But where in the chronicles of cheesiness and the history of naff did you hear anything to beat Digby Jones's choice of records on Desert Island Discs?

Sir Digby is an epic figure in British commerce, a grass-roots entrepreneur, a corporate financial and a crazily enthusiastic ambassador for British business abroad, but dear God - "Simply The Best" by Tina Turner? "Wind Beneath my Wings" by Bette Midler? "Everything I Do" by Bryan Adams? "Hello Again" by Neil Diamond? It was like listening to a succession of elderly TV commercials for Gillette razors, Lynx anti-perspirant, Strongbow cider and Primark boxer shorts. I'm not sure the choice of "Younger Than Springtime" from South Pacific ("Gayer than laughter am I/ Angel and lover, heaven and earth am I with you!") did much to buoy up Jones's musical credibility, already holed below the waterline by his choice of Elgar's "Nimrod" and Blake's "Jerusalem".

The blend of lachrymose patriotism and gruff manly emoting made me feel as if I'd been hugged for 45 minutes by a large, tear-stained British bulldog. Doesn't he have teenage relatives, who could have laughed at him until he promised never to confess, in any public forum, to a liking for George Benson?

* My friend Debbie has started working for a gay baker in Wandsworth. The baker and his boyfriend are a whizz at classic wedding cakes, so naturally they're much in demand among the growing population of gay couples queueing to plight their troth at civil partnership ceremonies. In this Arcadia` of swain-on-swain nuptials, however, there's a snag. It's the little figures that stand on the top of the wedding cake.

There's an unprecedented demand for grooms, two per cake. "As an emergency stratagem," Debbie tells me, "I've sometimes split up man-and-woman figures and used two male halves. But often the groom is attached to the bride and has his arm around her and if you snap the figures apart, the man loses an arm. It's absolutely fine if you're a gay amputee marrying another one. But it's hardly suitable if you've got four arms between you."