Slugger does the Twelfth, again…

THIS wasn’t my first Twelfth, but it was my first attempt to make a video, and its the quality is probably on a par with the family holiday movie your dad once made with that camcorder he got given for Christmas. Anyway, once you’ve finished laughing at it, I?ve stuck some thoughts on the Twelfth below the fold.The day began outside the BBC’s HQ in Belfast, where the cameras were set up for the traditionally convenient view of the bands coming up Bedford Street – a shot as tired and worn as an Orangeman’s shoes after the event. It was also the Slugger crew’s meeting spot. With Mark McGregor‘s planned attendance dependent upon the whims of the public transport holiday ‘timetable’, I hook up with Quintin Oliver of Strategem, who kindly provided our blogging team with transport.

Before the bands got under way, I caught the Tweenies coming up the road ahead of a Lambeg drummer. I remember as a kid watching the Lambegs bouldering through our village and feeling the ground tremble before I could see them. And when they got really close, you almost winced from being gut-punched by the relentless barrage of sound.

I noticed one or two fellows wearing Red Hand Commando and UVF T-shirts, and I don?t mean the ‘historical’ ones. Tossers. They wear them because they can, because they won’t be challenged, even by those Prods who are offended. Then some slightly odd bloke in a union jack bowler and smoking a fat cigar tried to make small talk, but I really have no idea of what to say when he suggests a thousand bands will be on the march in Belfast. My disinterest in the numbers game appears to irritate him, but he seems harmless and buggers off to a safe distance.

And so the flute band parade begins. I’ve seen quite a few parades over the years, but most have a fair smattering of accordians, brass bands or bagpipes. Belfast doesn?t, or at least I saw none in the hours I was there. I’ve nothing against flute bands, but it gets incredibly monotonous. One shrill Blood & Thunder band sounds pretty much like all the others I’m afraid.

There are, of course, plenty of UVF flags on display. The names and dates on the flags make it clear they are commemorating the ‘old’ Ulster Volunteers of the Somme and 1916, although the much later UVF killer Brian Robinson’s name is printed on the side of one band’s drum. Also not so historic is the ‘Ulster Defence Union’ flag, which I suppose is what you fly when you can’t get away with a blatant UDA one. The UPRG standard bearers were well-cheered on some parts of the Lisburn Road, and I only heard one collective ‘Fuck the Pope’ cry from a band, on the return trip later.

There was an upbeat atmosphere in the city centre; the sun was still out and everyone was happy, or at least merry. People catching up with old friends, grabbing Orangemen’s hands as they passed, or sharing the odd bottle of Buckfast with some fella called Heremate. I’ve nothing against Bucky per se, but it was a little early in the day. Most seemed to be in good form but some further up the road near Bradbury Place seemed more intense and rat-arsed.

In terms of entertainment, there really wasn’t much variation on display. You have the music of the flute players, the pageantry of the banners and flags, the colour of the marching militaristic uniforms and smiling collarettes, a big bloke hammering a drum to within an inch of its life, and… then you have it again. And again. And again. Fine, if that’s what you like, do it. Repeatedly. The pattern was only broken during rest breaks when bands would do wee routines; marching in a circle for a few minutes, skipping about gaily with their bannerettes, crouching and marching backwards playing the flute, showing off their baton-twirling. Despite the militaristic uniforms, this all feels decidedly camp. Or maybe it’s because of the uniforms. Regardless, it was something different, and much more entertaining than the actual marching, because Stuff Actually Happened.

Looking back at Mark’s blog, I was surprised by how little difference there is between how this lapsed Prod and a republican feel about Belfast’s parade, although I didn’t feel as intimidated as he was by the ‘drunken mob’ he described. Perhaps it’s a residual tribal thing. But I doubt I’ll be going out of my way much for the Twelfth in Belfast again.

Then we packed our bags and headed for the sunny seaside. Well it was for a while. Then it got overcast and eventually the skies over Bangor opened. But not before we took in a different kind of parade; it felt more relaxed and reserved, fewer people were drinking and it didn’t share the intensity and excess of Belfast.

It also had instruments that were not flutes. There was even a Rangers accordion band, brass and pipers. The mixture of music definitely helps. Altogether more laid back.

We decided to head for the Field, where we were greeted by an Ulster-Scots banner stretching across the road. ‘Fair faa ye’ it declared in small letters below ‘Welcome Brethren’, though this was the only reference to Ulster-Scots I?ve seen at a Twelfth. Don?t think I’ve ever heard anyone say ‘Fair faa ye’ either. And I?m from the sticks.

This being one of the Orange flagship events, there was plenty going on in the Field. There was a kind of mini fairground for the kids. I don’t know if this is standard these days, but it’s a bloody good idea. I remember how bored and tired I used to get watching the bands and walking for ages to a field. On the other hand, I’m not so sure if it’s a great idea for the stalls to be selling BB guns and crossbows. Just saying.

Also a good idea was the talk on battlefield tactics from horseback by a King Billy-alike, a professional looking historical re-enactment actor. He demonstrated how a single-shot pistol used in 1690 could be gripped by the barrel after firing and used to bust heads while riding at the enemy, and he also busted one or two myths about the same period. Apparently, William’s soldiers were a much more diverse bunch than the thousands of Orangemen surrounding us today – although as if determined to prove me wrong there were some African members heading for the platform. You could argue that it’s tokenism, or that Orangism in Africa is a legacy of British colonialism, but given the problems we’ve seen with racism here in recent times, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to remind the insular Ulster brethren that they have family from around the world.

Quintin just had time to ask Orange Grand Secretary Drew Nelson a couple of questions before it finally rained on our parade. Nelson, who is one of those chosen few trying to update the Twelfth, may be seen as a moderniser, but he still can’t resist getting a few digs in at nationalists in front of the camera. It’s nothing outrageous, if you can hear him in the video behind the wind and music from the platform (which wasn’t great, to be honest). If Bangor, as compared to Belfast, is any measure of the success of his strategy, I hope it continues. However, trying to modernise an organisation that clings to tightly to the past must be like herding cats.

A break in the weather gives us the chance to make a break for the car. Then it’s back to Belfast for the return march. By the time we make it to Shaftesbury Square, the heavens have opened. The parade is late, and poor Mark – at the mercy of a cruel public transport system and potentially traumatised by this point(!) – has had to abandon us to get home.

The parade is late anyway, and despite an interesting chat with a Parades Commission monitor, rain has well and truly dampened spirits. Quintin understandably heads on too. As the day has ended up a damp squib, I decide to do what Mark did and get out of my comfort zone. So I head up towards Ardoyne for a nosey and maybe get some video footage. On foot. For miles. In the pissing rain. To see a protest.

Sure what’s the worst that could happen?

To be continued.