Essay for BBC Radio 3

When the Victoria Centre, a symbol of Belfast’s confident new future, was opened last year, I heard a young woman in a shop tell her friend: ‘Go. It’s brilliant. It’s not like being in Belfast at all!’. And this is true. On a recent visit I stood in one of the shops that radiates out from the main building, with its elaborate dome, into the nearby streets of the town’s older commercial district, and watched my fellow shoppers. In particular I watched a group of young people. They were perhaps 18, or as young as 15, and seemed to me to be the product of over a decade of relative stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.  They were confident, well-dressed, poised, and (judging from their conversation) possessed of a sophisticated brand awareness. We might be in London, they seemed to say.  Or Manhattan.  Nearby coffee shops were brewing real coffee, and beside the City Hall, Belfast’s own Big Wheel advertised the place as a plausible tourist destination. Here was somewhere you might go on a city break, somewhere on the budget flight route.  These shoppers, in other words, were living the dream! This was the city I wanted to live in (and to write in) ten, fifteen years ago.  It was urban, normal … and, hang on, all a bit depressing.

Yet it was this normality I wanted, more than anything else, when I was younger.  A kind of urban normality.  When I first moved to Belfast, wanting to write, both it’s public profile and literary activities were dominated, naturally enough, by the Troubles.  My life, until this point had not been. The rural South Down of my up-bringing was not immune to the news bulletins and atrocities, to whispered involvements and victims.  Indeed these took place often closer to home than my frankly geographically-bewildered young mind comprehended.  But I was vague and day-dreamy – and, anyway, I had no intention of living in Belfast which (as their dark epicentre, the place in the headlines) I conceived of more or less as the Troubles.  When some of the very worst violence took place – the IRA bombing of a Shankill Road fish and chip shop, the Greysteel shootings – in fact I was in Dublin.  And then, in September 1994, a month after the IRA called a ceasefire, I did move to Belfast. I was faced with the harsh reality of my Northern Irishness.

Here poets were famous for the authority with which they had responded to sectarian conflict.  They were the semi-official spokespeople for outraged humanity. At school, Seamus Heaney’s North was, for some, an A Level text, and his subsequent argument with himself over the business of composing elegies, and finding emblems for the conflict, was the subject of media debate.  The following year, he would win the Nobel prize.  Northern Irish poets were identified, in a way, as war poets – and with Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’ which appeared in The Irish Times in September 1994, it seemed as though they had got the last word on the peace too:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son.

I felt as though I had moved less to a place than to a very well-known theme.

It was not one, I reflected miserably, about which I would ever have anything to say.  My reasons for resenting the most famous face of Northern Irish literature were the same as my reasons for resenting those strangers on holidays as children who would circle the question of our Northern Irishness, and then ask if we’d been ‘affected, at all, by The Troubles’?  Why do I have to talk about this?  I would wonder.  Why do we have to be answer these questions?. And if one of my problems with Belfast was its blood-soaked image, another was its lack of cosmopolitan sheen.  I told the strangers on holiday that ‘we didn’t live close to town’, as if that was a guarantee of neutrality – which displayed not only my naiveté, but also that I considered Belfast, precisely, a town.  It was somehow both a town and a violent, backward anomaly.  My nineteen- and twenty-year-old self had a notion that poetry should spring up, unhindered by politics, from some inner life, or from an invigorating outer one.  The reasons I had moved to Belfast had been entirely emotional (I was, basically, dysfunctional) but I wanted to write about ordinary every day things.  Look, I wanted to argue with no one in particular, I did Philip Larkin for A Level.  How could you write normal poetry in Belfast with its obsessive regionalism and prescribed topics?

At this point, in fact, the answer seemed to come from fiction.  In the mid- 1990s (while I was living with friends, who, strikingly, did normal things like arguing about who should go to the shop, or getting drunk and sleeping with people they shouldn’t have), it was the novelists who offered the possibility of a normal – or relatively normal, or at least recognisable  – city in literature.  The feeling seemed to be that The Northern Irish conflict had claimed the attention and made the reputation of the poets, now the matter of the city, and the city’s future, was in the hands of prose-writers. Glenn Patterson – notably unbearded, unbardic, and tireless in his encouragement of young writers – was writer in residence at Queen’s University, and he seemed distinctly emblematic.

For me, at this time –  as is probably always the way with people who want to write –  life and reading continued, sometimes along distressingly separate paths, sometimes converging suggestively.  I got to know Belfast better, and realised that there was more to the place than the walk from the bus station either into town or south to student-land. I read some literary criticism by Queen’s academics on Northern Irish poetry: Eamonn Hughes’s observations that Belfast often figured less as an actual place in writing than as a phenomenon, in particular, seemed vitally true. As the ceasefires failed and faltered, I discovered other bits of the city. I read some Paul Muldoon and found a frisson in merely recognising the names of streets, as well as in his refreshingly tawdry subject matter But in mapping a post-Troubles city, a real and complex location rather than the scene of an apparently timeless conflict, the novelists remained in the ascendant.  The Good Friday Agreement was just around the corner, and I had gravitated towards the Art College, and to art college boys in particular, with a vague sense that they represented something more exotic and metropolitan, by the time I read Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson. I had by this time also learned some surprising lines of allegiance. I was astonished to learn that Philip Larkin had written some of the poems that I most loved – those normal poems of curmudgeonly alienation – in Belfast. I discovered too that those indigenous to Belfast were actually a bit snobbish towards those from the country. Rather than being offended, I found this Belfast-supremacism brilliantly urban.  It is evident in McLiam Wilson’s non-partisan love-letter to Belfast and its people, whose romance is infectious. I was 23, and it was directly after reading Eureka Street  that I wrote a deliberately non-poetic, narrative poem about the Belfast dance-hall where my parents met.

These are the past lives of my mother and father
Which have come to me in fragments, handed down
Like a solvable puzzle – ready to give up
Some clue to the possibilities of the city
That my mother left when she was 26.

Last night I dreamt that I was 26 and married
To the city. Under a fog, the voice of my father:
What will you give up?  What will be handed down?

Well, it was oblique.  Belfast figured only briefly – as a backdrop.  And why did I think 26 was so old?  But I thought it was a start.

At the beginning of Eureka Street, Jake Jackson remarks that, under the circumstances, ‘Belfast was a pretty famous place.  When you considered that it was the underpopulated capital of a minor province, the world seemed to know it excessively well… Belfast was only big because Belfast was bad’. And I suppose what I overwhelmingly wanted to write were poems not about Belfast’s badness, but about the incidental and mundane things that happened to me and my friends among its occasional threats of mayhem.  I wanted to write about living in horrible flats and sitting in the park in the summer; about liking bands, and being on the dole and about my friend Stuart, reluctantly, getting a job in the civil service.  And I did – I wrote, for instance, a poem called ‘For Stuart who accidentally obtained a job in the civil service’….  But significantly, I wrote these short, fragmented poems which were published in my first book, These Days, in Edinburgh.  They featured a Belfast I had only left for about five minutes but for which I was already a bit nostalgic.  And it was in Scotland too that I finally read Northern Irish poets properly.  Encountering Ciaran Carson’s mapping of the city, or the Belfast of Muldoon’s ‘The More a Man Has’, I wondered why I had ever thought the place was one which limited the perspectives of its writers. I read Tom Paulin and Medbh McGuckian was embarrassed to think that I’d ever believed intellectualism and experimentation could only happen in some half-imagined metropolis. Northern Ireland, rather than a place hide-bound by tradition, turned out, in literature, to be one of tireless invention and re-invention.

In a way the Belfast I returned to almost ten years ago, (and where I have lived ever since), seemed like a city struggling to match up, in reality, with this re-invention and re-imagining. In its efforts to meet its peacetime destiny as a modern, cosmopolitan city, there were surprising new features. There were guided tours, and a sudden, never-ending stream of small arts festivals.  Indeed, the future suggested at the closing of Eureka Street – in which newly successful businessman Chuckie Lurgan announces his plans for securing millions in investments so that the province can make money – seemed also to be manifesting itself.   A housing and development boom saw the building of luxury apartment blocks near new landmarks like the Odyssey Arena, and eventually the re-branding of some of the city’s districts into areas: the Cathedral Quarter, The Titanic Quarter, The Queen’s Quarter.  I wrote about some of these ‘car parks and luxury flats’ in the poem ‘Leaving Belfast’ from my second collection Drives.  In it, inspired by my friends – artists and photographers –  who had always tried to make unexpected things in a city which tended to cliché, and were sceptical of the commercial re-generation, I tried to be simply responsive to kind of things I saw:

The planes fly so low over the houses in the East
Their undercarriages seem like the stomachs of giant birds.
The skyline in town is the ragged, monitored heartbeat
Of a difficult patient, the river holds its own…

In fact, I actually enjoyed many aspects of this emerging Belfast. Alan Gillis, in his poem ‘Progress’, however, sounded a warning against the over-eagerness to forget, to move on from conflict to a bright, economically-viable Post-conflict life:

They say that for years Belfast was backwards
and its great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
From the earth. I guess that ambulances
will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
to be explosively healed. Given time,
one hundred thousand particles of glass
will create impossible patterns in the air
before coalescing into the clarity
of a window. Through which, a reassembled head,
will look out and admire a shy young man
taking his bomb from the building and driving home.

Indeed, the recent resurgence of violence here has shown the dangers in too quickly applying a post- anything label to the places with legacy like Northern Ireland’s.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the halting forward-and-backward nature of progress in Northern Ireland, it does seem likely that the teenagers I was staring at in Victoria Square had never felt that Belfast was, as of old, characterised by badness. So what are people going to write about, or make art about now? If sectarian conflict is less of a pressing concern, neither does there seem to be much point in stressing those normal aspects of Belfast. Not, after all, if Belfast is not just post-conflict, but post-post-conflict. Not if Belfast is really normal. Or perhaps the question should actually be, why would anyone bother writing or making art here? There’s no money in it. More seriously, maybe this will be what people write about here:  Money, shopping, or shopping centres with their legions of frighteningly well-dressed young people, with good hair, and sudden, American inflections to their speech. On a local level, Belfast has retained a surprising ability to inspire and nurture its writers. But if its literature has shown anything, it is that while writing may be facilitated by groups, it gets done, finally, by individuals and their arguments with themselves and their worlds – of which immediate locale is only one aspect.  The city’s new writing, then, seems more likely than ever to turn outward towards those other cities which Belfast increasingly resembles, and to the concerns of their people: whether we can spend our way out of economic catastrophe, travel, globalisation, the environment, how it will turn out for Obama, facebook …

Or at least, now that Belfast is normal, and I have been given permission not to care about it, these are the things I’m interested in.  In truth, though, I’ve never had a sense of place so much as of being displaced not very far from home, and I have often thought that I lived more in an imagined Belfast, a Belfast of books, than I real one.  At best I can say I have lived in Belfast variously: contentedly, miserably, temporarily. sometimes relishing it, but also frequently more or less ignoring it, as in a poem I wrote, ‘Boxes’, where I subtly suggest that N.I,. stands for N(ot) I(interested). In other words, I have probably just lived here they way people who spend large amounts of time indoors looking at computers live more or less anywhere. Or at least this is what I do when I am not standing around the shops waiting for inspiration to strike. Though perhaps what I’m really hoping to strike, of course, is a lucrative corporate sponsorship deal.