It was FL Green, author of Odd Man Out, who wrote about Belfast: "Things seem to be happening here constantly and the city has an atmosphere that a creative writer needs". Seventy years later those words are still relevant and Belfast is a recurring character in my stories – a daring, angry, bloody and conflicting presence.
I grew up in the suburb of Ballyhackamore, in the east of Belfast, and have been largely ensconced by the Troubles. The only fear I really experienced was a bomb threat when I was about seven. Ten years ago I returned to the east, to the city center, next to the Ravenhill Road. Despite our supposed age of peace, I experienced the second bomb threat of my life here, although in these difficult streets bomb threat is a misnomer; it was more of a bomb-ignore, as most of us happily chose not to answer our doors when the police tried to evacuate us.
I could say that I moved here only for the cheap rent, but I also knew it was a buzzing, edgy, urban hood. Which writer wants to be stranded in the suburbs? All they are good for is loneliness that is 50 percent of writing, but the other 50 percent requires excitement.
My street moves with the times and is already ethnically diverse. Last year there was a discovery of a Latvian crystal meth plant in the final house, resulting in thrown-in windows and the message on the wall, & Drug dealers from & # 39 ;. The walls here are often used for community guidelines (the writer in me can at least appreciate the merit in writing on stones instead of throwing them). Some newcomers integrate into the mainly loyalist community – I recently saw a Roma boy sneak away with two biros on a battered red-white-and-blue drum – but the majority lead different lives.
Compared to the rest of Belfast, my district has always had a more religious mix. The Catholic Church around the corner was built on land bought from no one less than an orangeman. My street was even called humorous Pope's Row by locals. My neighbor, Reggie, told me that when paramilitaries from the Shankill arrived in the early '70s to expel Catholics, he protected his Catholic neighbors by claiming to be Protestant.
However, last summer was different from previous summers. New posters appeared under the Union Jacks and UVF flags, tagged with Stand Up Against Sectarianism & # 39 ;, with emotional images of the Troubles, such as the bomb attack in Hyde Park, the Kingsmill Massacre and the Shankill Road- bombing. All have republican atrocities, so it is ironic that posters that claim to be against sectarianism are used to promote it.
I do not think that the memory of the past is necessarily a bad thing. & # 39; Unless we forget it & # 39; is anchored in the Protestant way of thinking and every November 11 I think of my great uncle Brian who was murdered in a second airborne mission in the Second World War when he was in his early twenties. My neighbors keep a lantern in their window for their loss and, although it may be fashionable to glorify multiculturalism, there are times when there is beauty in unity.
But something happened in my street from last July that shocked me. On the eleventh day, the police disassembled a large bonfire from nearby Cluan Square for safety reasons. I knew that the decision would be seen as a purification of Protestant culture from interface areas and I expected anger to erupt in the time-honored tradition of urban frustration – riots. But no.
Two days after the twelfth teenagers, the St. Vincent de Paul school broke into my house and set it on fire. At that moment I was outside, but I heard afterwards that about 15 hooded teenagers and balaclavas were running along our street. As I said, I anticipated anger, especially in the sweltering heat of an unusually hot summer, but I never expected anyone to try to burn a Catholic school.
It is impossible to say whether it is an echo of the Troubles or a harbinger of a new conflict, but I am sure that these teenagers, with their own grievances, did not know anything about the religious mix of this area. There are only two ways to deal with history; to completely ignore it, or to view everything. The problem is that many Northern Irish people get a cherry on the cake to support their own convictions.
Although the tension in the city feeds my writing, it is difficult to be a writer here. A Protestant friend told me about the title of my short story collection, Catholic Boy, "are not you the only half of your audience?" I totally disagree with that; writing sectarianism in a universal way exceeds sectarian terms. By the way, who really wants a book called Cross-Community Boy?
It is also not easy to survive financially in Belfast. The DUP and Sinn Féin have no need to support the art unless they endorse their own limited view of culture, such as flute bands or trad-sessions. They preserve a fierce suspicion of free-thinking intellectualism, because their power bases are located in streets like mine, where the force is still determined by male muscles and, of course, teenagers in balaclavas. One thing you can bet on is that if we had a president, it would not be a poet, but rather a boxer or a famous chef.
That said, Belfast has at least one pub named after a poet, although the irony is that Hewitt is more in the Planter and the Gael & # 39; then sat the porter and the ale. As Michael Longley once joked at me, he called a pub. The John Hewitt is like naming a brothel the Mother Theresa. For the other extreme, the George Best Hotel will soon be opened. I can only imagine that the house special will be a champagne tower!
There was another discovery that I made this summer. I had always thought that our family, with my quiet youth in Ballyhackamore, had escaped the problems reasonably intact. I recently heard that a relative of my father's cousin had been shot in the early 1980s. He was the son of a farmer and went about his work when he was attacked by the IRA. It only shows that almost every family in this small country has suffered a loss. Even small psychological scars run as deep as bullet holes here, but without them, our writing would not have its passion and depth.
Rosemary Jenkinson's latest collection of short stories, Catholic Boy, was published by Doire Press with ACNI support