Looking down on Belfast

Jun 5th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

The kitchen table was scattered with papers: this morning’s post, a pollcard for the referendum, a supplement from last Saturday’s Guardian; yesterday’s Irish Times and a copy of Dangerous Play, a collection of Andrew Motion’s poems, 1974-1984, which had appeared amongst the books for the parish fete.

Dangerous Play seemed the best option for reading with porridge and the book fell open at “Leaving Belfast”, a poem dedicated to Craig Raine.

Motion, writing of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, was not enamoured of the city he left behind as the car drove north-west in the direction of Aldergrove Airport.

Driving at dusk on the steep road
north to the airport, ‘Look back,’
you say, ‘The finest view of Belfast,’
and point, proud of your choice to stay.

How clear the rows of streetlamps show
which way we came. I trace them slope
by slope through marshlands slipping down
to lanes, and find the roofs again,

their stern geographies of punishment
and love where silence deepens under rain.
Each sudden gust of light explains itself
as flames, but neither they, nor even

bombs redoubled on the hills tonight
can quite include me in their fear.
What does remains invisible, is lost
in curt societies whose deaths become

revenge by morning, and whose homes
are nothing more than all they pity most.
I watch the moon above them, filling rooms
with shadow politics, though whether

voices there pronounce me an intruder,
traitor, or a friend, I leave them now
as much a stranger as I came, and turn
to listen in the twilight for their griefs,

but hear instead the promise of conclusion
fading fast towards me through these miles
of stubborn gorse, until it disappears
at last in darkness, out beyond the coast.

The lines grated.

Leaving Belfast a stranger in those times was a matter of choice; the paradox of the North was that a country riven by sectarian violence offered the warmest of welcomes at an individual level. Everyone spoke to you; there were few who would not have gone a second mile to help you. Motion felt alienated by “curt societies . . . whose homes are nothing more than all they pity most.”

Were Andrew Motion to drive from Belfast this afternoon, as Northern Ireland elects a new Democratic Unionist First Minister with a former IRA member as deputy First Minister, what would he make of the city he left behind?

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  1. Typical of the Irish to call that time ‘the troubles’. Slightly understated I would think. But what was it all for? We were discussing the futility of war the other night and how once war-torn or politically unsettled nations are now holiday destinations whilst new countries take up the slack and begin again . . . South Africa, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Iraq . . . in 20 years time will foreigners be returning to climb their mountains and sun on their beaches as they do in Croatia, Cambodia and Vietnam?

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