I’m freezing on the ferry, all wrapped up like an eskimo; I won’t go inside. Ireland is coming, I’m dreaming.
I’m writing a story for a short film, it goes something like this, from a boy’s perspective- I flattered myself the bulge of a pack of Marlboros in my pocket. Tom’s mirror was quite expansive and presented an awkward view of his room from the wall. I wondered if my friend was influenced by this strange repetition and if it confused him as it often confused me, or perhaps he revelled in it. Was he very much in touch with who he was? Where would he hide to aspire? How can you lie in bed and dream when you can see yourself, your world and all of it at the flick of an eye? How, where, do you hide from yourself?
There’d been riots in Belfast and I’d caught the news a month ago and I wanted to see it before I left, it seemed the only interesting place in the UK, where people were still deciding things- what flag to wear, who to be. Every place else there I found dead, miserable in hopeless certainty- I blamed it on the architecture- so rigid and permanent, no one could imagine the place as anything other than it was, that it had been for many years. A fucking bore.
I thought I’d make a short film in Belfast- about a group of middle-class Catholic boys that go on a bicycle trip and get lost in a Protestant neighbourhood on the eve of a riot. So I go to Belfast, the fare is cheap and the passage beautiful.
(Belfast is brown in the rain) At the bus station, John, my host comes over to meet me. This guy has walked out of Hemingway and is exploding with drama and information. Just outside the station, he walks me through Bill Clinton’s arrival at the much bombed Europa Hotel and the signing of the peace treaty that put a relative end to the civil conflict that had raged in Northern Ireland for over thirty years. The way to his exquisitely decorated apartment is short but vivid with life and culture- culture like in this particular neighbourhood no one locks their front doors, because it’s all Catholic and extended family-like, and so no one has to fumble with keys in a fire-bombing.
John shows me a map of the city carved out as Catholic and Protestant camps- go there see that, be careful here, don’t go there. I take his advice the first few days. I see walls, walls like I haven’t dreamed of and here they are in a modern European city- 20 foot high with barbed wire to separate communities and prevent violence. Taxis from one side won’t go to the other. The bus routes are split between two companies, each representing one side. Smells like Beirut.
A SPAR cashier wishes me luck finding a job, I tell him I’m not looking for one.
Never been more aware of what, whose, area I’m in than I was in Belfast- you just had to look. The flags on the streetlights- Irish for Catholic, Union Jack for Protestant. You had to look at the graffiti on the walls, it was always there- I told John it was like in Life of Brian with the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People’s Front all horribly at war with each other- there were dozens of these groups, all different, all the same.
John walks me through the most fortified neighbourhood in the city, Short Strand- place looks like something from The Walking Dead- huge walls, barricades, CCTV- or, uhh, Finchley. I ask him why IRA dissidents (when the IRA got the boot in 1997 after the cease fire, it became the ‘Real IRA’ and the government became the new ‘IRA’ that now hunt the ‘dissidents’ from the ‘Real’ one) are tolerated in areas like this and he said because they have guns, and when things get bad, they bring them out and they’re needed.
The Protestants are insane. Some strangeness aside, I never felt afraid in the Catholic are as, but these Unionists are fucking loonies. They constantly hold parades, march up and down their neighbourhoods in military buff with drums and trumpets under their flag studded streets.
I tell John about my short film, he said it’s happened, didn’t turn out well. He leaves for Dublin, I watch Cabaret on his tiny television. It’s a great film and I love it- John had played me a song from it- Tomorrow Belongs to Me, about the rise of the Nazis, illustrating the Belfast situation. It’s apt. I want to go to Dublin.
I go to Derry. A barkeeper gives me a bunch of postcards with great photos of important people on them- Spanish anarchists, South American freedom fighters, a photograph of a wall of photos of Chilean poets. At the bar I also meet a miniature artist. That is, an artist who paints miniatures. Landscape? I ask. Portraits. Now I’m always interested in miniatures.
I go to Dublin. They stop the bus and take me to a police station because I don’t have the right VISA. I feign ignorance, they leave me at a bus station, deporting me, ‘Go back to Belfast’.
I go to Belfast, it’s amazing. John keeps the photocopy of my ‘denial of entry’ as a souvenir. He takes me to a bar. A guy is getting drunk with his friends. Then we are friends, his name is Stephen. Mo chara! They have this funny thing in informal social settings in Belfast, they only ask your first name, I suppose it keeps things simple. I’m talking to Stephen about the ‘Troubles’, he tells me his mother used to work at the Europa Hotel, it got blown up when she was in it, a British soldier was helping her out, he, Catholic, rushed, or his brother did, and took his mother from the soldier because he didn’t want anyone to see her being helped by a Brit. He’s drunk and asks the bouncer to tell me stories about the IRA, the bouncer looks like he would know, and politely avoids the subject. The night is good and the place is too, but this could have gone badly. I make a note- be careful who those you talk to talk to.
Got an email from Stephen recently (well not that recently) – ‘I am only writing back to you now as I just recently got my arms blown off in an I.R.A style bombing, hope all is well with you.’ I was right, I as Indian do have a lot in common with the Irish. We were both under the yoke of the British. We starved.
They found a bomb on Jamaica Street. I go out looking for St Anne’s Primary school, scene of vicious riots in very recent past. I find the sport bar John told me about (Don’t go there, he didn’t say, but something to that effect). Windows are bricked up because they used to toss grenades in. Very IRA pub. I start talking to some people. We go into the back where we can smoke. The stories. They tell me everything I know, I pretend to be a social worker. I pretended to be a social worker and got to talk to a local NGO at length about the rehabilitation of children through art, so they can learn to live together. I told them I was something something Indian riots work with children. I got tearful. It was honest tears, funnily. Still have the literature. Must be priceless here. Rotting in my suitcase.
At the bar they say, you don’t know what it’s like, you walk to the bus stop and get on the first bus. We’re worried about you, this is a terrible place to be curious. Someone offers me a job, I decline. Fool!
I leave. I walk towards the bus stop, it’s a terrible place to be curious. I turn around and walk deep into the troubled neighbourhood. Someone was watching me from a maroon van as I studied the wall art, IRA martyrs, some taxi driver who was shot for ferrying people around on a crucial day on a strike day. I walk walk walk. End up on Jamaica Street, where they’d found the bomb maybe 2 or 3 days ago. Quiet residential. Bikes in the yard, little children being loaded into cars. Strange place. Catholic.
I walk. Spitball. Little kids, ass! I congratulate him on his aim, suddenly they’re all over me, something like 10 year olds. They’re curious, I tell them I’m Indian. Are there tigers in India? Snakes. Yes. Yes. We walk, I ask them about their relationship with the people across the street, it’s an interesting location, just across the main drag begins a sprawling Protestant hood. They say they both mostly keep to themselves. But some kid crossed over and was beaten up recently. It’s wonderful, I’m getting what I want. We split, I cross the street into the Protestant side. It’s insane. I ask the kids there for directions, three younger ones, 2 older ones about 15 on bikes. The younger ones tell me, the older ones stare at me, a very strange expression, incredulity. How the fuck, they can’t imagine, did I just do that? Just crossed over from one side to the other like it was NOTHING!!! Blew their minds. Strange place.
I get on the bus, I feel sick. Too many flags, too many names, abbreviations. This is 2012.
I’m learning how to look. It’s incredible, difficult. John says read the last paragraph.