‘Remember this man’. He was standing at the door of 219 Roden Street. An old burgundy cardigan. A shirt of no colour or shape, open at the neck. The skin on his neck baggy and unshaven. His mouth, denture-less, moved constantly. His hair white and pushed back from his forehead. He was around 74 years old at the time. We had delivered his milk (one bottle per day) all week. Friday morning was money collection time. We’d be back in the evening for those who were at work, though they weren’t many.
He was holding the bottle with two hands, looking at me as my father said, ‘Remember this man’. Joe Bambrick now has a blue plaque to commemorate him. It’s high above the doorway of the house in Roden Street where I shifted nervously, as silent as him, as my father began a reverent monologue, directed at me, about his achievements; played for Glentoran, Linfield and Chelsea. Scored four goals in the cup final in 1930. More than 80 goals in one season for Linfield. ‘Isn’t that right, Joe’. He nodded. And then that he held the record for the most goals scored in one international match – six out of the seven in a 7-0 win for Ireland over Wales in 1930.
Back in the electric milkvan I got the fuller stories. The ground the 7-0 match was played at was Celtic Park, then largely derelict but still used for greyhound racing. It would later be demolished for the sake of the Park Centre. The team was ‘Ireland’, though in effect Northern Ireland. And why that was. And on we went. The Linfield v Belfast Celtic match in 1948, told as if he’d been there. Stories to the buzz of the always unreliable electric motor, as the milkfloat trundled around the streets where my father’s relatives still lived.
Joe Bambrick deserves a plaque as much as anyone, and more than most. He was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. By the time I met him, and remembered him, the major events of his life had long been encased in quotidian time. He was, it seemed, a ‘folk hero’ in a tradition of various Northern Irish sporting heroes: Best, Higgins, Taylor. When Alex Higgins came on television my father, who has always had a capacity to repeat himself, would say, ‘he owes me ten bob’. It is only with a bit of distance and maturity that I find I value one thing in the midst of this inverted pathos of local pride, of the knowing the individual on the box. The personal memory (even if, in the case of the Hurricane, it may have been severely embellished over time and in the polish of retelling) was a small victory over television and its glamorization, even its making, of the folk hero. George Best was a folk hero only in retrospect, and only through the media, as it rushed the pace of fame into nodules of sentimentalized localization. Filling space, anticipating outpourings. That’s how you end up with an airport called after you.
Higgins too was a television phenomenon. I always thought that unpaid ten bob was built around a resentment and jealousy of his success. But really it was a bringing back to earth of what was coming in through the aerial. Because there are no folk heroes in a television or digital age. In my place and my time Michael Stone was, temporarily, treated as a folk hero. Stone was a famous ‘man of the people’ for what he did; and what he did, he did on television. Even that awkward, terrified run towards the ghost of Celtic Park was fixed in the memory because everyone saw it on the news. Stone’s appalling actions were not rumoured or retold, they were seen, relayed, replayed. He acted like on the films. For all that some thought him an authentic defender of the faith, he was a perverse video hero, acting out a heroism which waited for him like an empty shell waits for a hermit crab.
Everything can be commodified. Everything is. In his wonderful essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music…’ Theodor Adorno sneeringly discusses an advertisement for beer. ‘What we want is Watney’s’ goes the hypnotically idiotic slogan. Adorno suggests that the impetus behind the ad is that the consumer will ‘need and demand what has been palmed off on them’. Folk heroes may have once existed in some real and authentic way. But if they ever did, then now their stories are told and recycled, fitted to the formats available, and the formats dictate the telling. All alternative forms of narrative are already accounted for. From the glories of historical figures (voted on) to the successful weightwatcher, the revolutionary to the amateur tv chef, the saint to the minor local writer who gets a blue plaque. The heroic, if that’s what it is, is subsumed by fame and fame is filtered and broken into chunks that fit the ad breaks, the tourist guff, the things that are sold to ‘folk’ and sold as ‘folk’. The sentiment and pathos of the local history group is the last remnant of whatever the genuine folk hero once was. Self-conscious and recalcitrant, making its worthy but losing case for the expansion of the cast of the great and the good, the blue plaque is a window on the past, one which wants to shape it, like a movie, into a tale of small heroisms done here. It’s a good thing that Joe Bambrick has a plaque on his house in Roden Street. His recorded heroism is: ‘Double Hat Trick for Ireland 1930’. Another version might say: ‘Held a milk bottle in two shaking hands here one Friday in 1979, and was reminded of his past.’ Another would be next door, recording the life of someone who did nothing more notable than being born, living and dying.
[The Vacuum, 2011]