The gay revolution will be televised


In the process of researching Brendan Behan, I came across the cast for the 1960 Broadway production of his play “The Hostage”. I ran my finger down the list of names, none of which meant much to me until I came across Glynn Edwards. It rang a bell. I wasn’t sure why so, as we all do, I googled it and once an image of the face popped up I smiled. Edwards was the round-faced actor who played Dave, the barman and owner of the Winchester Club, the small-time villains’ hang-out in the beloved 1980s television show “Minder”. Even seeing the name brought me back to my childhood.

For those of us of a certain age, “Minder” was a staple of our cultural lives. In an era before hundreds of channels became available and quality became seriously diluted, the adventures of Arthur Daley and Terry McCann, watched over by the stoic Dave, were appointment television on Thursday nights. Decades later, I can still recall sitting on the couch with my father and brother, waiting to see who Terry would have to inevitably fight to save Arthur’s bacon. Of course, the mere memory of it prompted me to go looking for the show and a trip into the past. In minutes, I was downloading an episode called “Whose wife is it anyway?”

Forty minutes later, I turned off the computer, a bit sad yet also a lot provoked. The show hasn’t aged well – something those of you who catch it on one of the various retro channels available in Cork – may already have known. But there was more to it than that. In this particular story, Arthur and Terry have to protect a London antiques store for a pal who is in hospital. To do this they must work with a man who is his partner in the shop and in life. Just in case we didn’t realise this, immediately upon meeting him, Terry tells Arthur the guy is, and I quote, “a poofter”.

The language wasn’t the only thing dated and shocking. Part of the storyline and the humour centred on how Terry and Arthur were both afraid to be in the same room as the gay man in case he’d foist himself upon them. Yes, that old shibboleth. Every time he came too near them, they got nervous and queasy. Watching the whole thing, suddenly I came upon an awful realisation. If this was the type of stuff we saw on regular television every week, is it any wonder there was so much homophobia and suspicion of gays in the Ireland in which we grew up?

Television is one of the most powerful media when it comes to influencing people, especially the youth. We thought terms like “poofter” and “iron” (curious London slang for gay – the full term is iron hoof because it rhymes with poof) were perfectly acceptable because we heard them bandied about by beloved characters on our screens. So, aside from shattering one of my most cherished television memories from my childhood, watching “Minder” also made me thankful that the cultural landscape has changed so much in recent years.

Every week, my 13 year old son watches the sitcom “Modern Family”. One of the most popular shows in America over the past few years, among the families featured is a couple of gay men and their adopted Chinese daughter. It all seemed such a normal part of modern life in this country that I never thought of it as that important. Until now. The prehistoric attitude towards gays evinced on one episode of “Minder” made me thankful that my children will grow up in a world where on weekly television, gay men are called “Dad” rather than “poofter.” This represents progress.



Boston now more than a feeling


Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the River Charles (aw, that’s what’s happenin’ baby)
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, fuggers, and thieves (aw, but they’re cool people)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you’re my home

– Dirty Water, The Standells (1966),

(traditionally played when any Boston team wins)

After so much coverage of the Boston bombings, so many stories of devastation and reports of carnage, somebody mentioned on the television that Jane Richard, a six year old girl who lost her leg in the first explosion, is a keen step dancer. Since turning three, she’s been a student at the Clifden Academy of Irish Dance in the south of the city. When the World Championships came to town last month, she was an awestruck spectator, gazing up at the older kids hoofing across the stage at the Hynes Centre, just a block away from the spot where she stood to watch the end of the marathon with her family last Monday afternoon.

That small byte of information was enough. Jane Richard was now more than a name on the screen, more than another entry on that lengthy list of 180 who were so grievously wounded. Jane suddenly became Janey, a red-headed sparkplug of a child in an elaborate, decorative dress, jaunting around a hall with a dozen others just like her, their parents filming them with cameras and phones, taking part in one of the great formative rituals of an Irish-American upbringing. One of the firefighters who came upon the horror on Boylston Street recognised the little girl because he’d seen her Irish dancing with his own daughter in Milton.

When news started to come through of the attack on the Boston Marathon last Monday afternoon, nobody would have needed to be told this is the most Irish city in America. We didn’t have to hear that the now infamous Boylston Street is the location of the Irish Consulate and of an Irish pub called Lir to remember that the bond between these two places goes way back. Boston is where the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in 1737 and, on Evacuation Day during the Revolutionary War in 1776, anybody trying to get through the continental lines had to know that the password was “St Patrick”. Our histories have long been intertwined.

Even on race day when the city is always awash with runners and tourists from all over the world, it wasn’t surprising that two of the three people who died, Jane Richard’s eight year old brother Martin, and freckle-faced Krystle Campbell (29), happened to be Irish-American. No other city boasts such a concentration of people with genuine Irish heritage so that type of death toll was, unfortunately, going to be inevitable. Of course, the irony is that when the Irish first arrived in Boston in huge numbers in the 19th century, the Brahmin elite didn’t want them to stay.  The Irish made it their home anyway, evincing the same sort of belligerent attitude that still informs the city’s spirit and which has served it particularly well during these past few difficult days.

I’ve never lived in Boston but my father-in-law’s entire extended family is based in and around the city and I’ve spent a lot time there over the years.  When Irish people ask me what it’s like, I don’t have to think very hard. “It’s like Cork,” I tell them and, of course, I mean that as a compliment. It’s charmingly parochial, entertainingly quirky (at a certain point you have to drive south in order to go north!), and always, always carries a massive chip on its shoulder about a bigger, more glamorous city down the road. Bostonians regard New York with the same suspicion Corkonians reserve for Dublin. Sure, Manhattan may be the finance and media capital of the country but Boston is the capital of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, the centre of its very own universe.

The rivalry between the two cities is most magnified in the sporting arena. It wouldn’t be uncommon to be stuck behind a car on the Massachusetts Turnpike and to spy a bumper sticker of a little boy in a Boston Red Sox cap peeing on the New York Yankees’ logo. Think Celtic-Rangers without the sectarian horribleness. Last Tuesday night then, Yankee Stadium echoed to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”, a song that has become part of the game-day experience at the Red Sox’ Fenway Park (built by a Derryman named Charles Logue). The Yankee fans sang along lustily in one of those enduring moments when historic sporting enmity melting into  true solidarity.

In many ways, sport is the beating heart of the city. The Sox, the Pats (New England Patriots), the Bruins and the Celtics (named to reflect the Hibernian heritage of the fanbase). They live and die by the fortunes of their teams and the passing of the seasons.  Within 48 hours of somebody thinking they could strike fear into the heart of Boston with this attack, TD Garden was packed to the rafters for the Bruins’ ice hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres. Both teams wore decals displaying the slogan “Boston Strong” on their helmets, and when it came time to sing the national anthem at the first sporting event since the bombs struck, 17,000 people cleared their throats and nearly took the roof off the place. Defiant, I think, is the word.

 “Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city,” wrote Dennis Lehane, the novelist and native of Dorchester, the same neighbourhood now grieving for the Richard’s family. “This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”  Trust me, we won’t be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this. We won’t cancel next year’s marathon.”

The Boston accent is, even the natives admit, harsh and unpleasant on the ear. The butt of so many jokes on national television through the decades, the missing r and the dropped g are almost badges of authenticity, worn with stubborn pride. “The accent is more of an attitude than an accent,” said Ben Affleck, who grew up across the Charles River in Cambridge. Well, the attitude was something we all saw up close in the footage of the immediate aftermath of the bombings, all those people rushing towards the smoke and the blood and the devastation.

At a time when nobody knew whether there was going to be a third, a fourth or a fifth device, dozens of cops and race stewards ran into the danger rather than away from it. So did many of the runners, shrugging off the crippling fatigue of the 26th mile of a race, peeling off their singlets and t-shirts to use as tourniquets. Whatever else this person or persons hoped to achieve by blowing up Boston, they have to know now this is the calibre of people they are dealing with. They won’t run and they definitely won’t hide.

Last Monday, the city bent very briefly but it didn’t break. And anybody who has ever spent time there would have expected nothing less from a city that has always been a charming mess of contradictions.

It prides itself on being tough and blue-collar (American for working-class) yet has more universities per square foot than any other city in the country, with 53 institutions of higher learning in the metropolitan area at last count. Like many, Lingzi Lu, the third person to die in the attack, had come from Shenyang, China to study mathematics and statistics at Boston University. She made the short walk down from the campus to watch the finish of the marathon. Why? Because that is what you do on Patriots’ Day, a landmark event in the city calendar, a joyous occasion often compared by boastful locals to spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

It should be noted Patriots’ Day is not your traditionally dull Irish bank holiday. The Red Sox play a home game at Fenway that kicks off the celebrations at 11am while around Copley Square hundreds of thousands gather to watch the concluding stages of the marathon. After the typically unforgiving New England winter, here, on the third Monday in April is what’s supposed to be the official start of spring, a day to get out and about and to look forward to summer. Originally, established in order to celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War, it has turned into a sporting festival, as much as a remembrance of the city’s unique contribution to the story of America.

Not that the history isn’t taken seriously. This is where the Pilgrims built their beloved city on the hill. This is the site of the Boston Tea Party when they threw the East India Tea company’s produce into the harbor to protest taxation without representation, the birthplace of the revolution that would send the British sailing home. Many of those visiting for the marathon last weekend took time out to walk the “Freedom Trail”, a two and a half mile stretch that stops at the house of Paul Revere who rode through the night warning that the British troops were on the move, and Bunker Hill, where in a glorious defeat, the rebel militia proved they had the fighting credentials to take on a superior power.

This then is the town these terrorists, whoever or whatever they claim to represent, have picked a fight with. A place with a heritage hallmarked by courage, a tradition of overcoming adversity, and a people who didn’t back down when they were faced with the might of the empire where the sun never set. This week, they might have been bloodied but they remain proudly unbowed. Boston Strong.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on April 20th)

Was Muhammad Ali the first great rapper?


In June 1961, a boxer and a wrestler were in a Las Vegas radio studio promoting their upcoming bouts. The boxer was a humble, gracious and unassuming 19-year-old facing into the seventh fight of his fledgling career. The wrestler was an arrogant, preening, loudmouth veteran, styling himself as the greatest in the whole world. It only took a glimpse of the impact “Gorgeous George’s” loquaciousness had on the box office for young Cassius Clay to realise this might be the way forward. Deciding modesty was a poor seller, the fighter formerly known as “The Louisville Larruper” was on his way to becoming “The Louisville Lip”. Sport would never be quite the same again.

“This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,” he once rhymed, “The greatest fighter that ever will be. He talks a great deal and brags, indeed, of a powerful punch and blinding speed. Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right, if he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night …”

Nearly half a century later, his personal contribution to the canon of memorable quotations was sizable and impressive enough to merit a publication of its own. Having gathered a selection of the best, author George Lois went one step farther. Calling his book Ali Rap, he contends that the former heavyweight champion was also the first heavyweight champion of rap itself. By way of proving this thesis, Lois offers only a brief introductory essay before letting decades of quotes establish his case that Ali’s fast-talking and free-styling laid the foundation for the musical form that came out of the South Bronx in the ’70s.

“A pugilistic jester whose verbal jabs made more headlines than his punches in the ring, his doggerel was an upscale version of street trash talk, the first time whites had ever heard such versifying – becoming the first rapper, the precursor to Tupac and Jay-Z,” writes Lois. “His first-person rhymes and rhythms extolling his hubris were hilarious hip-hop, decades before Run DMC, Rakim and LL Cool J. His style, his desecrating mouth, his beautiful irrationality, his principled, even prophetic stand against the Vietnam War, all added to his credentials as a true-born slayer of authority, and the most beloved man of our time.”

Although we can find no evidence in his versifying of Ali ever calling women bitches and hoes like Jay-Z, or threatening to bust a cap in somebody’s ass as per the late Tupac Shakur, tracing a lineage between the boxer and the rappers that came after him isn’t that difficult a task. Almost his every public utterance was infused with a braggadocio that today comes as standard in most raps. Before Jay-Z was even born, Ali was referring to himself in the third person, and skilfully using his rhymes to taunt and torment rivals inside and outside the ring. Despite their penchant for high-profile and sometimes deadly feuding though, few rappers have ever carried off name-calling with the same brio as their most illustrious precursor.

Now Frazier disappears from view,

The crowd is getting frantic,

Our radar stations have picked him up,

He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought?

When they came to the fight

That they would witness

The launching of a black satellite

Lois could have strengthened his case even further by pointing out that in their slavish devotion to bling, rappers are all pathetic imitations of Ali. With an entourage that often numbered nearly 40 and a rapacious sexual appetite, he boasted a garage full of Rolls Royce cars and a fondness for conspicuous consumption that would have merited an entire episode of MTV Cribs. Of course, the real difference between Ali and the rappers is that there was genuine substance behind his style. Jay-Z’s idea of radical action is to organise a boycott of Cristal’s $500-a-bottle champagne because of insulting comments that the company’s chief executive made about rap. Ali energised a generation, went to jail and into expensive exile rather than fight what he regarded as an unjust war.

Hell no, I ain’t gonna go

On the war in Vietnam I sing this song

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong

Clean out my cell

And take my tail to jail

‘Cause better to be in jail fed

Than to be in Vietnam, dead

In his quest to prove the fighter was the progenitor of this art form, Lois goes back as far as the crib where the baby boxer could reportedly be heard muttering “Gee-gee, gee-gee”. If nothing else, the inclusion of that ludicrous quote proves the author must have as good a sense of humour as the fighter.

“Before there was Rap, there was Ali Rap … a topsy-turvy, jivey jargon that only Ali could create, but a language we could all understand,” writes Lois in a more cogent moment. “Talk about an original! Way back at the age of 12, a white Louisville cop gave him boxing lessons so he could whup the guy who stole his bike – in six weeks, as an aspiring prizefighter, the 89-pound Cassius rapped his first poem, predicting “This guy is done, I’ll stop him in one”. And from then on, the flow was non-stop. His chatter. His poems. His predictions. His uproarious use of language soared …”

The truly ironic aspect of his reputation for brilliant improvisations, savage put-downs and lightning wit is that the quote most often associated with Ali was the work of somebody else. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” came from the imagination of Bundini Brown, his cornerman cum court jester. Notwithstanding various suspensions from the entourage for infractions such as marrying a white woman, Brown was one of those who continually stoked Ali’s creative fire. Whether or not the end results are classified as doggerel, poetry or rap, their entertainment value endures still.

I have rassled with an alligator!

I done tussled with a whale!

I done handcuffed lightning.

Throwed thunder in jail!

Only last week I murdered a rock,

Injured a stone,

Hospitalised a brick

I’m so mean I make medicine sick

Stretching from his birth in Kentucky through his metamorphosis from promising young fighter into radical Muslim and world figure, Lois’s collection underlines yet again Ali’s unique stature. Even his most childish verse serves to remind us that the modern sports world is a place where bland is beautiful. Tiger Woods talks a great deal without ever saying anything. Michael Jordan famously eschewed political comment for fear of affecting sneaker sales. Ali used to taunt President Richard Nixon and regularly called out an entire nation for not facing up to its racial history.

“I am America,” he said. “I am the past you won’t recognise but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.”

The only weakness to this book is that Lois chose to omit some of Ali’s more outrageous statements regarding race relations, some of which again underlines how much more radical he was than most rappers ever will be. In the 21st century, it seems even his image must be sanitised to avoid causing offence. Hence, no mention of his opinion that black men who slept with white women deserved to die for their crime. That caveat aside, there is so much to savour in revisiting this career yet again.

In the ring I can stay

Until I’m old and gray

Because I know how to hit

And dance away

Ali turned 71 on 17 January last. The pity is he believed in that last verse a little too long.


‘Ali Rap’ by George Lois was published in 2006 but is widely available.