Reclaiming Symbols: An Outsider’s Approach To Writing In Belfast & The Emerald Isle

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Delivered To An Open University Conference On Contemporary Writing In Northern Ireland/Ireland, Saturday October 15th 2011.

Firstly, I’m honoured at having been given the opportunity to speak about something that everyone who has gathered here today, is clearly very passionate about and that is creative writing in Ireland/Northern Ireland.

I’d like to thank Heather Richardson for her support in encouraging me to take part in this and also to Csilla Toldy and the Open University as a whole, for helping to restore my faith in writing what I know, because as you’ll see, I believe that to be an important point in the context of contemporary writing here in Belfast/Northern Ireland/Ireland.

So obviously I’m not from here, but I have been living in the North for eight-plus years. One’s head cannot help but be turned by the surrounding environs, as is a matter of course for any writer eking out their daily existence with whatever portions of substance may be on the table.

When I first moved here I was already writing and I continue to write tales about characters and their escapades in settings like Toronto, but also in Scotland. I hadn’t planned to come here specifically to write about this place, but as one who writes, it was inevitable that it would creep into my work at some stage. It just so happened that the place was Belfast and all the complexities and contradictions that come with it. Little did I know…

I hadn’t moved here to quit drinking as I often joke, but to be closer to a particular young lady who lived out here and I couldn’t resist the urge to pack in a so-called career before the age of 30, in search of adventure and in pursuit of a romantic notion. It’s actually ironic how cliché it all started out because cliché is something that writers are all keen to avoid and it’s important to recognize it when it’s seen.
Whilst considering ideas for this paper, I recalled a book that has reached more than a few North American bookshelves and which has certainly lent itself to what must be the definitive guide to Irish cliché.  The image of the moonlit silhouette of a certain Conor Larkin appearing from out of the boggy fields of Ballyutogue, with a loaded rifle smuggled in his jacket to kill the men who have dared brought dishonour to his land and family and to win the favours of his fair maiden, has set the heart of many a young lady (and perhaps young man) racing and indeed to these shores in search of their very own Conor Larkin. It’s as ridiculous as it all sounds and in the context of today, well, one of the last things Arthur Rimbaud as a poet said was:

“We must be absolutely modern”

Though that quote is almost 140 yrs old, it holds some significance in the context of what we are discussing today.  The author of the book I’ve mentioned wasn’t Irish, never lived in Northern Ireland and so the question remains, how could he have ever possibly written about the truth? Still, it’s appeal to the masses for the romanticized version of history is well, romantic, but dangerously so, as is anything that distorts the truth, which is the high goal that any writer should be seeking to attain, be it their own or their characters. Perhaps I would be less disturbed if it hadn’t been the object of my affections who had entrusted me with her copy before she left me, as though it were some holy book, five months before I would join her here in Belfast. Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to measure up to be her Conor Larkin. It was only ever going to end in tears, really and it did, but that’s another story.

Between baited breaths whilst studying for her Masters, my lover had told me that the ‘Troubles’ was one of the most written about topics in the history of mankind. That sounded like a trap I’d be keen to avoid and it somehow stuck in my mind as I wrote then and as I write now. Part of my initial desire in coming here, other than the promise of continuing our wild sex-capades from where we had left off, was also my intrigue at the concept of Northern Ireland and Belfast’s desire to move on from these so-called ‘Troubles’. This presented an interesting parallel, for this was not unlike my own difficulties and frustrations with the life I was leading in Toronto. So the opportunity to come to Belfast presented a unique opportunity to move on and in synch with my environment, in a mutable and synergistic co-existence.  I readily accepted this challenge once I had made my decision and was keen to use this an excuse to come back to a side of the pond I had always felt more comfortable on anyhow. However, once I arrived here, I checked myself and realized that I could never know, nor ever REALLY understand or feel like what it must have been like to have gone through a life touched by the type of violence, chaos and disorder of the nature that this city, this country and this island had been immersed in. I had to accept that I would always have (and always will have) a certain degree of naivety about the ‘Troubles’ and therefore maintain a healthy respect for this part of the past without necessarily ever truly understanding it. So instead of lifting this country’s raw and fragile scab and peering to see what was underneath it so I could write about it, I was always more interested in sharing my experience and my life by immersing myself amidst this city’s renewal with what I hoped might be my own. I’d inspect the lint gathering upon the new skin and the party and the real life goings on above the surface. In summary, I never made a decision to not write about the Troubles or the past, the decision was made for me, that is to write about what I’m interested in which is the truth and telling it like it is and writing what I know. Living here has only reinforced that notion whilst at the same put me under no illusions as I try to come to terms with some of the issues that are presented by living in a place as unique as Belfast.

The question of what it means to be a writer is important in the context of what we are discussing because we all have our own, very personal reasons for choosing to do so, or for it to have chosen us. Writing connects us to places: it allows us to create something which perhaps our own lives lack, or to tell it like it is or to tell it how we wish it could have been, but also to dream, to fantasize, to kill and to torture, to love and to hate. Writing liberates us from the monotony of real life unless we are lucky enough or indeed brave, crazed or daring enough to try to live the life we write about. It is inevitable that we become influenced by our surrounding environs, because as writers, the senses must become attuned to what is around you and it touches you and vice-versa whether that’s in Belfast, Burundi or Brussels. Whether we choose to write about our surroundings or not is once again a personal choice for that writer.

Issues raised for this gathering such as ‘dominant Irish literary themes’ are interesting ones and that’s what’s spurred me to submit my original abstract.

It is important for me to note that as a Scots/Canadian/Trinidadian who now finds himself in the metropolis of Belfast, that the so-called dominant themes of exile, displacement and identity are not the exclusive domain of Irish Literature. Writing chooses many who suffer and rejoice in all manner of wretchedness and euphoria in that hallowed lair of self-exile where the Muse may have led them and where the fire furiously burns. For those private moments we are alone, but the burden/responsibility of being or becoming a writer is one shared by all truth-seekers who use words as their chosen medium.

So I would like to talk about the ‘New Belfast’ and what I’ll call ‘guilt-free symbols’. One need not even look at the legacy of the Troubles to find a rich tapestry of symbols that are synonymous with the modern Belfast. These are the guilt-free symbols, symbols that can be reclaimed.

We are thirteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement. The wind of change stirs old symbols into new life, though evidence of this may be more prevalent on the Lisburn Rd than in say North Belfast.

I am in effect, if writing about my neighbourhood, putting more emphasis in telling the reader about the smear of dog shit on my front steps than about the ‘Joyriding’ mural at the bottom of my street. The former holds much more relevance. The bullet-holes in the brick wall below the mural may seem significant, but I wouldn’t have known they were bullet-holes at all if Harry the taxi-driver hadn’t told me. That’s my naivety.  The latter two are symbols of the past that I may reference but the key symbol in my description is the smear of shite on my front steps. An appropriate ‘Welcome’ mat indeed, that says so much. I could go on to talk about the disused barracks and the pall of shadow it casts on nearby streets but there are other symbols for what I am trying to describe. I am writing about the present and the commotion on the surface of it all rather than peering below it. The symbols of the past are not my primary focus, so I won’t ignore them, because they are part of the environs, so I will tip my hat to them because though the hard symbols of the past certainly remain, the past is not my concern.

Indeed the dog shit in this setting is one of the purest symbols at my disposal and devoid of cliché. This might not be the case if I were writing about walking the streets of Paris and talking about kicking poop with every other step. Of course the great American author Charles Bukowski used the symbols to great effect in his writing, even once entitling a poem ‘Piss And Shit’.

Unburdened by the past, symbols like places take time to evolve:

Consider the grimy-faced mill worker from the factory a classic and infamous character, symbolic of the linen-clad past. Well, she is now that call-centre worker encrusted with fake tan trying to walk out the door in high heels she can barely even muster a wobble in.

In time, the barracks may get torn down and become housing (unless a former Arts and Culture minister has his political way). Prisons will become hotels, disused dockyards will become tourist attractions – this will all take time.

There are other symbols that are perhaps timeless and which for me are definitive of a modern Belfast without the burden of any scarred past:

The magpie, which arrives at my window rat-tat-tatting the very morning I sat at my table and lifted my pen to begin writing the first draft of my full-length novel. It cocked its head and peered right in at me and told me to be careful telling the truth. This isn’t a city full of former paramilitaries and freedom fighters or alcoholics and politicians or Presbyterian politicians or dyed-in-the-wool, peacemakers, this is a city full of magpies!

The Harland and Wolf cranes may be synonymous with Belfast but they are not cliché yet. The impressive grandeur they present visually makes me wonder if there is indeed anything higher than a Belfast crane? This is how I often describe my occasional bouts of euphoria: as high as a Belfast crane!

A river flowing through a city always puts a place on the map: Paris has the Seine, Budapest the Danube, New York the Hudson – hey, Belfast has the Lagan, not to mention the irresistible knowledge that the Farset is diverted below the High St – an underground river even! Hmmm… a symbol of the city’s fluidity, the blood ever flowing beneath us taking with it its secrets out to the Lough and burying them in the very depths of the North Sea.

The surfer off the Kerry coast cutting fine lines through the waves and foamy thresh of Inch Strand. It could just as well be the North coast and the surfer on the Emerald Isle is a new symbol of freedom travelling along on the ancient oft-used pastoral scenery of the island’s coastline.

A symbol of hope – the 19lb pike caught in North Belfast’s Waterworks causing sullen faces to suddenly break into smile!

A symbol of unity – an ice hockey player in Belfast, a Giant of renewal

In my neighbourhood, whilst sitting at my writing table near the window, the sight of Norman, the local drink-sodden hunchback cursing at the rain drops as they soak his anorak through to his skin… A symbol of futility?

The first visit of the Queen being applauded by well-wishers in Dublin, a symbol of past colonialism, colonialism or post colonialism? Up in the North when they rename a brand new shopping centre Victoria Square, it shows a strong desire to solidify links with the past.

Rhianna hanging out in the New Lodge or dancing half-naked in a Co Down field before being summarily ejected by the Presbyterian farm owner: the dichotomy of these images has endless possibilities that are all uniquely Belfast and which are also all ‘absolutely modern’.

The point of these is that they all represent real symbols or real characters from a modern place happening in the present: Belfast or indeed Northern Ireland/Ireland and they can define our writing, what people think and believe but also serve to place our lives firmly in the present and moving forward.  Catch these images while you can because they’ll be gone one day or will evolve into something else so keep your paint box and easel at arms length.

Personally, I’d sooner colour my writing with untainted images that reflect my exile, my futility, my hope and joy, unburdened by the shackles of the past, rather than see it sink beneath the weight of something far too heavy for it to carry.

In a local context, it would be tragic to move beyond the subject matter presented by Northern Ireland however difficult, for the very reason that it is intensely interesting. Some of it may seem tired or stale and it may remain that way for some time, but some if it is most certainly new and continuously evolving.

My novel aims to put Belfast in the context of the downturn but presents issues that are unique to a Belfast removed from the Troubles. Belfast is not unlike any other city in that it has had its share of problems. Some of them are new, like that of the feral children who roam the neighbourhoods with impunity.

By moving away from the subject matter presented by Northern Ireland, we risk missing and capturing the very essence of what is the very lifeblood of what makes this city ebb and flow. This is a place abounding with characters rich in the qualities that makeup up the very fibre and sinew of the pages in the books we have read and loved and there will be more books written and hopefully doing the same to a new generation of readers. We must share and capture these times with our pens, our minds and our hearts in whatever manner we see fitting and let others be the judge of that. There is a new generation of literati who will rise, who are rising and who have risen, to help take us there and to guide the way. They can win the hearts and minds, fire the passions of youth and help lead the people.

So moving forward, the reclamation of what has symbolised Belfast and Ireland / Northern Ireland as a whole and creating new symbols which define this island’s people and cities is an essential step in re-defining the approach to writing on this island, if that is indeed what is needed.

In summation, I wish to you leave you with another final symbol of New Belfast, one which is reflective of the burgeoning influx of foreign nationals and cultures which are becoming commonplace here in this newly evolving place.

The sight of my neighbours at 1.30am on a school night bringing not one but two blanketed figures into their home with the distressed calls of some creature or another filling the night air. I later learned that when the reporting officer arrived at the apartment, they discovered a pig in the bathtub and a goat cunningly stashed away in the cupboard.

Whilst a pig in the bathtub, a goat in the cupboard, a magpie, an alcoholic hunchback, a three-legged Staffordshire terrier and a Belfast crane may not be standard symbolic fare for Belfast, for me these are the very images that are redefining this city in it’s life beyond the Troubles. These are the symbols that the winds of change have swept in, they are the very symbols of a New Belfast and perhaps of a New Ireland which is more diverse, cosmopolitan and perhaps for just awhile still yet, in some parts just as horrific and as beautiful as any other place on Earth. What picture one chooses to paint is entirely up to the individual.

I must consider myself to be lucky in some ways that where I live is so goddamn weird. I’m in firm belief that somebody opened up a dark portal and just never ever closed the damn thing, at least, that’s what my outside perspective tells me. I have no other explanation. Until it’s closed, I’m more than happy to remain as long as it means I’ll be privy to scenes that make living and writing an occasional burden, but quite often, a pleasure.

Thanks for listening!

Peter Sumadh

October 2011

References: Fowlie, Wallace, The University of Chicago Press 1966, ISBN 0-226-71973-1, Page 209,
Arthur Rimbaud – “A Season In Hell”: ‘Farewell’.