Thursday, 27 June 2013

Land of my Fathers

At ground level England can seem very urban and concreted but flying from Stansted to Belfast earlier this month it is easy to see what a 'green and pleasant land' it is. The impression from the air is a patchwork of green and bright yellow with the occasional splodge of woodland or a wiggly deep green line showing the path of a stream or river. And - mercifully - the roads don't show up that much. So although most of our country is tamed and manicured, there is room for wildlife. I just wished I could have heard the birdsong from up there.

It was odd returning to the place my Dad called "over at home", and it was odder still that it felt both comfortable but unfamiliar, especially with my uncertainly about how much my English accent would make me seem like the enemy. The "religious" divide still feels alive and well.

The taxi driver who took us to our hotel, chatted as taxi-drivers do. He was quick to comment on our accents, joking that we might have difficulties with his. I presented our credentials saying that his lilt felt friendly and homely.

The taxi-driver responded 'That's what some say - others tell the truth.'

The jokes - apparently - hadn't evolved in the decades I'd been away.

My cousin talked about the Falls Road black taxis during the height of The Troubles. The Falls is very much a Catholic area. My grandfather was an Orangeman, which speaks of his affiliations. We're an athletic clan, and my cousin's daughter started to excel at trampolining. The best club in Ulster meant a journey up the Falls Road, where black taxis act like buses, picking up fares and charging little more than a bus.  But my cousin was told, 'Don't let your daughter use the black taxis. With her accent, everyone'll know she's protestant.'

Last time I was "over at home" I determined I would avoid sectarian labelling and when asked my religion, I replied. Buddhist.

'But are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?'

City Hall, Belfast

Life is much calmer these days. The black taxis offer tours of the Republican and Loyalist murals. Bridges have been built between communities, and money has been spent on regenerating the city. Mum and I took a tranquil riverside walk along the Lagan and were serenaded by gulls and robins.

We wandered along to Victoria Square and up into the glass dome and the panorama of the city: all the stately architecture of the capital, Napoleon's nose on Cave Hill, and the massive cranes of Harland and Wolff (where Titanic was born).

In our hotel, I overheard a conversation that made me smile. A group of Ulstermen - probably in Belfast for a wedding - were complaining about their wives' aspirations while staying in the Big City.

'All they want to do is shop - and they'll end up in Marks and Spencers.'

I recalled a very similar conversation of decades ago. My aunt and uncle were visiting from Northern Ireland and staying with my parents in suburban Surrey. My aunt and uncle were keen to explore London. My uncle aimed to soak up the history while my aunt wanted to shop. 'And would you believe it?' My uncle complained, 'We ended up in M&S!'
Well at least Belfast's M&S is in a listed building.

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