Today it is still warm in Belfast. I am sitting at my desk looking out onto the street below. People come and go constantly from the Asian supermarket opposite. Here is a vivid, culturally diverse, gritty and exciting quarter of the city.
I love it that one of the up-sides of more peaceable times here is that we are more culturally diverse, that there are more immigrants. It is a richer, healthier place for that, though I know too it isn’t necessarily easy for people to be here. It’s also a racist place; one full of contradictions; welcoming and hostile, relaxed and uneasy, progressive and deeply entrenched.
In the past, during the Troubles, and I know it is a generalisation, so spare me the corrections and bear with me while I explain what I mean – when people came here, who were from other cultures, for example from some of the countries of Asia and Africa, they were, most often, professionals – academics and medics for example.
This isn’t the case now. The majority of those who come here are working class people seeking employment, economic migrants, those seeking asylum. It means we have to ‘budge over in the bed’ and make room; adjust to learning new things; shift. In the round we are getting on with it, but I can’t help thinking……. let’s just say, we have some way to go. My own belief is that here is better for the diversity new people bring and for the challenges that come with it.
I liked Manhattan for that – another place full of contradictions. A place where people live cheek by jowl with their differences, difficult and all as that can be, whether what causes people to run up against each other is gender, politics, economics, race, sexuality, faith and religion.
Some things are unexpected. When I visited some years ago, I was struck by the fact that however far away I was, here, my own context had travelled with me. The pre-occupations I had at home were with me. The things that bothered me here, showed up and bothered me there too, though somehow, distance also gave a new perspective, and a chance to notice what was the same and what was different, and how the themes of our lives thread together, simply because we are human. I like to think about such things even when I haven’t gotten as far as a thorough analysis; even when all I can do, is continue to notice, to absorb what it is I see and experience – even if fully understanding remains an elusive thing.
There are things to be curious about and a value in being unimpressed too much by grandeur. Grit is interesting – the ways in which we run up against what is difficult and what we do when we get there.
The following is a poem I wrote while in Manhattan some years ago – from the privileged position of tourist and interloper. Unexpectedly, things came full circle for me and I inadvertently stumbled upon old painful memories of home, through old film in the archives of the Museum of Radio and Television. It is a small world. Suddenly I was remembering the death of a schoolboy peer, Paul Maxwell, in the bombing in which Lord Louis Mountbatten died when his boat was bombed off the west coast of Ireland. Today the sunny day reminds me of the weather that day. I look out my window and the diversity I see around me reminds me of Manhattan. Our news is full of Parades Commission rulings and ‘the marching season’. Overall, the atmosphere around doesnt feel too bad, and here, a place which was once an old flashpoint of it’s own, in the Lower Ormeau Road – things feel not too bad. In the round, things are so much better more of the time. Change is hard. It’s not always easy and it’s not always good, but it happens anyway, sooner or later. For now, we are on the better side of that. Oh, and here’s that poem…………..
Stepping out of Hotel Thirty Thirty.
for publication in ‘We are Bone’ Lagan Press 2013.
In the hotel
I check the phone book for emigres
and lie there flick-flicking the television from The Simpsons to evangelists
and back again.
wed rink hot apple cider for one dollar a cup
and pass the time in the street market;
organic Vermont cheese, handmade candles,
soap, bread from Connecticut, incense, Camolile tea
and lavender pot-pourri –
anti-abortion campaigners’ placard;
a solitary woman in red shorts
into traffic at ten below zero.
You can get anything you want in this city; any time, night or day. Anything
Boston Clam Chowder, Lobster Bisque,
Chicken Noodle Soup, boardies, a Kink’s T-shirt,
a Jet’s hoodie, whisky, Thai,
Stiff Little Fingers.
Dog owners stoop
to scoop the poop
and pop pooches
but I’m sure dogs
would rather walk anyway.
sleep on vents from the subway all night and ride any train all day.
A gallery on Madison exhibits them in a window display of phot-portraits –
the subjects hold frames, salvaged from skips, to their faces.
Snaps od someone asleep on a sofa with a Labrador scatter down 5th Avenue,
past a cement mixer painted in pastel polka dots.
I drop a note into the empty carton
below a baseball hat tilted at hand height to me;
he is a child who lifts his face.
In the Museum of Radio and Television I punch in ‘CASTRO’ –
the same episode of 60 Minutes from 1979
turns up Crossmaglen,
Narrow Water Castle
and the British Army on red-brick streets in Belfast
with stoops in the manner of Brownstones;
all the things I had forgotten;
stopping the car in disbelief
on the Queen Elizabeth Road
on a blistering hot August day.
Dylan Thomas ghosts himself into ‘lamb-white days’
‘the streets suck the stars out of sight
out of the sky……….’
‘Do not go gentle…….’ He belonged to his youth.*
A Veronese hangs in the Frick, outside the Enamel Room
‘The Choice of Hercules’,
[HO]NOR ET VIRTUS
[P]OST MORTE FLORET
Honour and virtue flourish after death.
Flourish after death. Flourish after death, but I am screaming, No. No. Now.
A bag lady washes in the ladies’ room of Central Park Zoo
and she cleans the bathroom every day to give something back to the city.
The street choir sings, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ and the frame cuts to the man who drinks from the bottle of ketchup he found in the bin. He says,
I am Jesus. I am Jesus.
and I believe him.
* denotes a quote from poet Derek Mahon, speaking of Dylan Thomas.