Reflections: “Casual comedy was part of this time’s fabric, as was terror…”

Nicholas Allen is Chaired Professor in Humanities and Director of Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia. He recalls a “thinning artery” of peace in the geography of Belfast’s late Troubles in the early 90s.

In the early nineties I lived in the upstairs half of a corner house on Dudley Street, a side street on the edge of the Holylands, that Belfast quarter sectioned by the Ormeau Road, the river Lagan, the Botanic Gardens, and Queen’s university.

The Holylands were anything but, unless decadence is divinity.  Its streets were named in the late nineteenth century after Cairo, Jerusalem, Palestine, Carmel, and Damascus, where we had our visions, although we never changed my ways.  All were bookended by Agincourt and Rugby Avenues, as if this lost colony of the old empire might be contained by its martial inheritances.  As if.

I remember this time in blacks and grays, the colours of night and of the rain.  Our liberty was darkness, our city a thin borderland whose edges ran from the university, down Botanic Avenue to Lavery’s bar, and on into town, past Dr. Robert’s records, to Giros and the Art College.

This narrow isthmus had its uncertain shoals in the adjoining districts, whose edges were read by the low hover of helicopters, bangs and rumbles, sirens, worried looks.  Occasionally we crossed the line, as I did one night, wrecked and out the door of the last terrace before the river.

I remember slumping on the cold ground beneath a spindly sapling, an army land rover driving slowly past, the soldiers in their helmets laughing at the eejit, rifles pointed up.  Casual comedy was part of this time’s fabric, as was terror, the two a rhythm section to bewilderment.

And music was everything.  I had been going to Giro’s from the late eighties, at first to use its band practice space downstairs, later to talk anarchy in the café above.  Café might be too grand a word for a collective and voluntary enterprise that served vegetarian food to all-comers, Giros a refuge for Belfast’s anti-sectarian, anti-capital, anti-fox hunting, anti-Thatcher, anti-Reagan, pro-Buckfast refuseniks.

I went there first in my school uniform, to some amusement given it was of one of the posher Belfast grammar schools, and graduated in the practice room from Police covers to American hardcore, which was punk played at double speed in the Limelight and the Arts College.  These shows were a riot of energy, the volume up, your friends on stage, off and back again, wild yells and wide eyes.

But we were not oblivious, however we sought oblivion.  One hazy afternoon in Jerusalem Street we were dimly aware of the pop-pop-pops that weren’t on a record, conscious as we walked out of the police cordon five streets down, the stall in afternoon traffic, the helicopters, again. On the news later, I learned that we had heard the murder of five people in Sean Graham’s bookshop, a few hundred yards away.

In the thinning artery that ran through the dying city, we lived with intensity, in rebellion against atrocity.  The back and then middle bars of Lavery’s were the workshops of our condition, our respite the cheap pints that were sold past their sell-by dates, the round backed snugs our parliament, the jacks our freedom, where all came and went, light-headed.

This was liberty, as was the Limelight, a sea of shaking hair, and all teen spirit, the early nineties a swell of bodies that bobbed up and down, and up and down, and some sinking, like beautiful Patrick, the photographer whose mother once phoned me worried that her son hadn’t his lights on his bike, all drowned now in a deeper dark.

Sometimes the surface of that lost world was as thin as the glass pane that framed the outsized window of the Dudley Street kitchen, which looked sideways onto the corner of Fitzroy Avenue.  We were there late one Friday night, drunk and laughing in the cold inside, when a patrol walked past slowly below, the bottle green of the solitary RUC man dazed by the orange sodium streetlight, the soldiers jogging along from crouch to crouch, as if in a children’s game.

I remember this scene like a painting, when I have forgotten, or misplaced, so much else, that Belfast a frieze of broken parts, the constellations of memory small scraps of bright recall, the Holylands lit like a dark star.

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