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An Angry Young Man

It could have been any street in any industrial town or city in England that winter evening early in 1970. Almost fifty years later it is impossible to recall with accuracy the nature of the buildings that lined it, illuminated in the orange glow of sodium lighting. I imagine most would have been closed and shuttered except perhaps for a launderette or a tobacconist. A dress shop, hardware store and pharmacy would have ceased trading an hour or two earlier. A fish and chip shop would have announced its presence long before I reached it.

It was around 7pm and the traffic was light. The number of working class families with motor cars then was much fewer than now. But it was an feature of the traffic that served as a reminder that this was not just another English city. In fact, it was not even England.

At just turned 28 I had been working for my then employer for a little over a year and a half. Much of that time had been spent producing drawings for a plant to be installed at the company’s synthetic fibre manufacturing facility at Carrickfergus a few miles north of Belfast. With design work completed I had been assigned to another project. Now construction of the plant was completed too. The task of starting up and handing over of the plant had been allocated to a young management trainee from Northern Ireland. I had been delegated to accompany him to Carrickfergus where my role would be to acquaint him with the various parts of the plant and their intended functions.

It was the availability of accommodation for him in the family home that left me alone in a small hotel for the night. I decided to take a bus into the city and take in a movie. The local paper I found in the small reception area of the hotel told me there was a film that might be worth seeing at a cinema on this street. Not knowing how far along the street the cinema might be, I decided to walk out from the city centre.

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August 1969, Belfast. Image (c) Paul Hill, originally commissioned by The Observer

The name of the street was all too familiar. Six months previously it had featured regularly in the evening news as the scene of rioting. I don’t doubt that my decision to walk was influenced by a morbid desire to see first hand the scene of those riots. For me and, I imagined, the majority of young Britons, those riots had revealed a shocking truth: that there was still, in the United Kingdom, a group of people who were denied certain basic human rights. They did not have the vote, they were denied access to certain jobs, and they were, or so it seemed, being treated by the majority of their fellow Northern Irish residents as second class citizens. We felt that, whilst some of their activities could not be condoned, they did have right on their side.

Now the government had acceded to some of their demands. The rioting had ceased and life in the province had returned to normal. Except that some of the army personnel that had been deployed to quell the riots were still present.

The passage along the street of two grey painted Land Rovers, bearing distinctive military registration plates, was my reminder that tonight I was on a street unlike any other in the Kingdom. Their windows were covered with steel plates in which narrow slits provided the only means for the occupants to see where they were going and to observe other road users.

Once arrived at my intended destination I discovered that the programme had changed mid-week and that the film I wanted to see was no longer showing. I didn’t fancy what was on offer and recalled that I had also considered the possibility of going to the “arthouse” cinema at Queen’s University where a film by Jean Luc Godard was promised. There was not sufficient time to walk back to the city centre but it occurred to me that I might get to the university before the film began if I took a bus.

I crossed the street and waited at the bus stop opposite the cinema. Soon I was joined by a couple of young men who stationed themselves behind me at a discrete distance and indulged in some idle chatter. I recall nothing of these exchanges. I took no notice, lost in my own thoughts until the re-appearance of those army Land Rovers on their return journey to the city centre.

One of the men behind me let rip an expletive laden torrent of invective against the “F***ing bastard British army”, shouted at the top of his voice. No sooner were the Land Rovers past than he must have regretted having expressed his anger within earshot of a stranger. He could hardly have failed to note my reaction: the reddening of my neck and ears, the agitated shuffling of feet.

Are you English?” he asked in calmer tones.

Denial was not a viable option. I turned to face the men. I guessed from the way he looked me up and down that it was the younger of the two who had posed the question. I didn’t doubt, either, that it was he who had uttered the tirade.

Yes,” I said, already beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing this far from the city centre alone.

A soldier?”

No.”

Journalist?”

I’m an Engineer. Doing a job for Courtaulds.”

What part of England are you from?”

Coventry.”

Ah. I’ve been to Coventry. I have relatives there. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. Can you imagine how you’d feel if Coventry was bristling with soldiers the way Belfast is just now?”

I resisted the temptation to point out that Coventry had not been the recent scene of civil disturbances. Grateful for the imminent arrival of the bus I moved closer to the kerb edge. I climbed the spiral stairs to find a seat on the top deck. The two men ascended and sat in the seat immediately in front of mine. Turning to lean on the back of his seat, the young man repeated profuse apologies and went on to regale me with a story about a friend who had, he claimed, been brutally beaten by a soldier using the butt of his rifle to administer the blows. The soldier and his colleagues were just teenagers like the victim and his friend. Their vicious show of power was the cause of his anger.

As the conductor arrived to collect our fares the young man insisted on paying mine for me. When we arrived at the city centre he provided directions to Queen’s University. It was there that I was to receive the second shocking revelation of the night.

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Bernadette Devlin addressing a crowd in Derry City. Image found at http://www.thoughtco.com. Attribution unknown

As the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had grown during the preceding summer, echoing the similarly named movement demanding equal rights for African Americans in the USA, one of the people who had emerged as a popular leader was a young woman from Derry called Bernadette Devlin. She had grown rapidly in popularity among the population of Derry City, sufficiently so as to be elected to the British parliament, where she had become the youngest member of that body, earning widespread admiration for the way she had articulated the grievances of her fellow citizens.

That admiration plainly did not extend to all parts of the province. As I approached the university campus I passed a series of timber hoardings upon which I was able to read in graphic detail, not so much a critique of her rhetoric, as a libelous account of “Bogside Bernie’s” sexual proclivities and the crudest imaginable descriptions of various parts of her anatomy. Alongside this shockingly pornographic writing were equally lewd, rude and crude illustrations.

I don’t remember much about the movie. It concerned a group of people stuck in a traffic jam as they joined the annual summer exodus from Paris. I vaguely recall that it featured some horrific pile ups involving numerous vehicles and some strange antics, around a camp fire, involving a fish.

The two examples of sheer unforgiving hatred that I experienced on my way there will, however, live with me forever. I recalled them repeatedly over the next two decades of violence that beset Northern Ireland and frequently spilled over to England with bombings of pubs and shopping centres in Birmingham, Guildford and Manchester among others.

In recent years the warring factions within the province have arrived at something of an accommodation and I have the greatest admiration for those like Mo Mowlem and George Mitchell whose patience and persistence made that possible. But it remains difficult for ordinary outsiders like me to understand what drove such bitterness and hatred. My belief is that fear born of ignorance is the root cause of conflict wherever it is found.

I often wonder what became of those two young men that travelled on the bus with me that night forty eight years ago, or the authors of the evil graffiti on the hoardings near Queen’s University. Did they join a paramilitary organisation? Were they driven out of their homes because they were of a different religion to that of their neighbours? Did they serve time in the infamous “H” block high security prison, perhaps participating in the hunger strikes or “dirty” protests? Did they become active participants in one or more bomb plots? Did they achieve positions of power within local or national government or in some covert organisation?

Above all, did they pass on their hate filled beliefs to their children and grandchildren, or did they discover, as some of their leaders seem to have done, an understanding of the importance of tolerance and forgiveness? I hope the latter is true.

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Life Changing Events

A few days ago Stevie Turner posted on this subject, taking her cue from an earlier post by Colline Kook-Chun. It inspired me to think about some of the events that influenced the direction my life has taken.

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  1. My father’s death in action in 1943. Had he survived the war, who knows what my life would have been like? I would probably have been brought up as a Londoner, since both parents were from there. I certainly would not have gone, at age 10¾ to a boarding school established for boys who had lost one or both parents. The school still exists, although the majority of pupils these days pay expensive fees. I shall be back there later this year celebrating 60 years since I left. Thanks to modern technology, many of my contemporaries communicate regularly with each other despite being scattered in different parts of the world.
  2. Meeting my wife in the summer of 1961. I was 19, she 16. I proposed in the early hours of December 27th, as I walked her home from the Boxing Night dance. We kept our engagement secret until her 17th birthday in June 1962 and were married in September 1963.
  3. Discovering, in the spring of 1965 as we moved into our first new house, that she was pregnant. We had not planned to start a family quite so soon but our son brought a new phase in our lives as a family unit and, as you will discover below, led to us coming to live in Ireland.
  4. Joining the staff at the Engineering HQ of a large corporation in the summer of 1968. That took me to South Africa and eventually to East Lincolnshire. Altogether I worked for over 18 years for that corporation and the pension I paid into now provides about 1/3rd of my annual income. It also led to:
  5. Being elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. I was one of 4 Liberals elected that year. The other two parties had 35 and 36 members so we held the ‘balance of power’, able to veto any proposal from either of the other parties. I like to think we used this power wisely. It was certainly extremely time consuming because, in order to do the job, we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee and working party.
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    The Humber Bridge. Image via Scunthorpe Telegraph

    My employer was extraordinarily generous with allowing me time off to do this, but after a year and a half I was offered the choice: cut down on your council activities or take redundancy. The redundancy offer was generous and I accepted, having visions of a new career as a writer and politician. After working, unpaid, for the party in the run-up to the 1987 General Election I needed to find some alternative source of income which takes us to:

  6. Our shop. We decided that, since Freda had worked all of her life in shops, latterly as manager of a charity shop, we should set up our own shop. I would look after the administration whilst she worked ‘front of house’. I researched the market and decided that Cleeethorpes could benefit from having a quality glass, china and giftware outlet. A unit was available in a building belonging to a kitchen design specialist who had his show-room upstairs. This seemed like an excellent fit. I talked to potential suppliers, put together a business plan and everything looked promising until the building went on sale. The owner’s plan to increase his income by creating and letting units had not worked out. Any thought that the new owner might still be interested in having us as a tenant was dashed when planning permission to open a fast food outlet was applied for.

    The next premises we looked at meant a complete change of plan. It was a moderately successful food retailer. The owner, a chef, prepared a range of chilled ready-meals in a kitchen at the back which he sold in the shop, alongside the usual deli-type goods and speciality foods. His recipes had been so successful that he had taken a small factory unit in Grimsby and wanted someone to take on the retail business, with him continuing to supply the popular ready meals. We opened in September and did great business in the run up to Christmas. Then the chef lost a big contract and had to close the unit so we lost our main supplier. We struggled on for the next few months but the risk involved in food retailing is enormous and we just could not compete with the supermarkets who were starting to develop their own deli counters and chilled ready meals.

    I got a part-time job writing business profiles for a regional business magazine but in the May 1989 election I lost my council seat and returned to my original career as an Engineer.

  7. Our son’s marriage in 1993. His wife is Irish and in due course they moved to Dublin with their daughter. So, when considering retirement options in 2006, moving to Ireland to be near them was a ‘no brainer’. More than eleven years on we are still here, enjoying life in a small Irish country town where we have met many new friends, some through the writing group to which I belong, and some through the support centre for people touched by cancer where we both volunteer.

At the end of Stevie’s post are two questions, originally posed by Colline. Here they are, with my answers:

  1. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s… a Ryanair jet bringing home the owner of the Grand National winning horse and offering free drinks to all the passengers
  2. What music do you like: Jazz, Folk, Rock, Blues, Broadway/West End Musical scores.

Thanks, Colline and Stevie, for the inspiration. I wonder how many of my followers will be tempted to follow suit?

Lurking in the Cafe and Bookstore #2

This visit to Sally’s place was planned a while ago. We had a long chat, listened to music and cooked a spicy, if imaginary, joint. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being part of it.

via Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Open House Sunday Interview with author Frank Parker

The Politics of Place Names

I suppose that by now everyone is familiar with the way the names of the Indian cities of Mumbai/Bombay and Kolkata/Calcutta, or Beijing/Pekin in China, have been returned to their local designations.

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The city of Mumbai – image via http://media2.intoday.in

Many African cities, and even whole nations, are now similarly referred to by their African names in preference to those conferred upon them by the colonial powers.

And in the former Soviet Union the names of places have changed as political upheavals evolved.

People outside of the British Isles might be less aware of the political minefield that surrounds the use of certain place names and geographical terms in Ireland.

One reader of A Purgatory of Misery recently took me to task over my use of some of the place names and geographical terms in that book.

I’ll begin with the one I just used. To me, and to many people, including the compilers of the Wikipedia entry for the term, “The British Isles” simply means the group of islands on the western edge of Europe that includes Britain and Ireland. However, in Ireland the use of the term is anathema because of the fraught relationship between the two largest members of the archipelago as documented in my book. So is any reference to the larger island as “the mainland”.

In the book’s description on Amazon I mistakenly referred to the 1845-52 famine as “the worst man-made disaster to afflict Great Britain”, forgetting that Ireland is not, and never was, a part of Great Britain. The full designation of the kingdom is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Between 1800 and 1922 it would have been “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.

But my biggest mistake – and it is one I ought never to have made – was in referring to the city of Derry as Londonderry.

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The Peace Bridge over the River Foyle in Derry, N.I. Image via startacus.net

I will not go into the history of the dispute over that name, rather I will refer you to this Wikipedia entry, this report of a Judicial Review, and this news report about a debate in the city that took place as recently as 2015.

These will give you a flavour of the problem, as will this quotation from a Unionist Politician during a debate in the British Parliament in 1984: “Until the 1960s there was a happy use of both Londonderry and Derry. I am a member of an organisation known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and it is proud to have that name. The Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who come from that area are happy to call themselves Derrymen. It was a matter that did not provoke excitement and it certainly was not taken as being an offensive remark to say that one was from Derry.”

No wonder the question of the border between the two parts of the island is a deal breaking issue in the negotiations over Brexit.

And the book? I’ve made the requested changes, and added a note at the beginning:

The use of the term “British Isles” throughout this book is intended as a shorthand description of the group of islands that lies at the Western edge of Europe. For reasons that will quickly become apparent to the reader, many Irish people have a deep resentment for any use of the word “British” in connection with their homeland. No offence is intended. This book is aimed at an international readership and we trust the term will be acceptable to the majority of such readers.

The same applies to the use of the expression “mainland” to distinguish the largest member of the group, including England, Scotland and Wales, from the island of Ireland.

I’m pleased to be able to report that the book continues to garner five star reviews. Even my harshest critic, in his private communication, said it was “[a] well written and extremely intelligent . . . short, succinct guide to the Famine”, and said it deserved to succeed.

There may be more good news about it early in 2018 – stay tuned!

The Poor Law Inspector – Update.

I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.

First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.

I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.

Why ‘Purgatory’?

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax. Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Great Irish Famine. Image from wikipedia

Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.

Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.

I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?

If Writing is not Political, What’s the Point?

A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?

Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?

My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.

Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?

Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.

Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.

Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?

Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.

When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?

You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.

Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?