At the downtown Belfast hotel I checked the Bangor phone directory. One of the women who raised me was back living in the tiny terrace house where she was born. The second woman’s husband was listed at the address near the railway station where I lived till I left home when I was 17. The next day, a Sunday, I took the train to Bangor, 13 miles away.
Growing up I was obsessed with widescreens. First the slightly wider screen that mutilated standard formatted movies by cutting off the tops and bottoms for the sake of size, later the much wider CinemaScope screen for which movies were specially filmed. My only doodle for the first 30 years of my life was the oblong CinemaScope screen, with the top and bottom edges curved inwards to suggest a vast object with the center receding into the distance. Idiotic psychotheorists might assume that repeated image was a phallic object; I think I never had the patience to learn to draw any other simple object. I was obsessed with widescreens because I longed for space, physical and emotional.
Along with the CinemaScope screen came the CinemaScope music extension that accompanied the 20th Century Fox logo, an expansive trumpet voluntary. A culture vulture in my late teens and into my twenties, my head was devoted to the films of Ingmar Bergman, but my heart was with the mediocre versions of popular bestsellers that the Fox movie factory churned out with diminishing success. I mean Peyton Place. So I always imagined that after fifty years, the first time I came out of the Bangor railway station and stood at the top of the steps that led down the street where I grew up would be a Peyton Place moment, the CinemaScope trumpets blasting to remind me to feel heightened emotions.
Nothing. The railway station and area around it were under construction and I had to walk around where the steps had been to get to my street. To the right, signs of urban decay on Main Street, but also human beings, never there on the deserted religious Sundays of my childhood. More shops at the top of my street than there used to be including, God help me, a Chinese food place. I don’t think there was a Chinese food place in the whole of Northern Ireland when I was growing up.
I crossed over into the dip to get a better view of the house where I grew up, still there on the other side of the street slightly up the hill. No signs of life in the house, but I felt like a loitering criminal, scared someone would come out and recognize me. Everything quiet.
Lean with ear lobes curled like bacon fried to within an inch of its life; early baldness in the genes; parsimony born of deprivation; anger, anger, anger leeching into every human exchange but rarely surfacing except in tight threats to “correct” others. My picture of the Northern Irish Protestant man. If you want to see examples, check out the actors who play Belfastmen in The Fall, the excellent BBC thriller with Gillian Anderson playing a British detective.
Then check out the actors playing Catholic IRA sympathizers in James Marsh’s film Shadow Dancer. A different race. I remember them with full heads of hair, sensual, redder-faced (all that booze), and strangely, in my memories less angry than the Protestants I grew up with. God knows the Catholics are supposed to be the angry ones, and they’ve proved it. Maybe their deadly anger seems less threatening to me because it was always taken for granted. (We stole their country.) Northern Irish Protestant men had less justifiable reason for their anger, except perhaps hatred of the Other.
It seems to me that Northern Irish Protestant men’s anger is rooted in having to maintain an indefensible position, which destroys self-respect: an alcoholic arguing that booze played no part in his three DUIs; a pornophile arguing that the young models in a world of shattered personal boundaries, drugs and prostitution aren’t harmed by doing what he watches.
When I moved to London, I found that most English didn’t know the difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and maybe you don’t. Northern Ireland was colonized by Scots and English Protestants in the early 17th century, an attempt to quell rebellion against English control. The Irish of course continued to rebel. And the colonialists, not exactly the cream of society, were as brutal and ignorant in Ireland as anywhere else, the natives treated as disposable savages. I’ve been called Paddy plenty of times by English yobs.
Despite the brutalities on both sides down the centuries, this seems the basic truth to me: the Northern Irish Protestants don’t belong there. Maybe that denied knowledge and the bone-deep manipulations of self that denial requires, is the basis for the anger I remember in Northern Irish Protestant men.
There are plenty of other reasons for my own anger.
Until I read Colin Broderick’s book That’s That I didn’t know how little I know about the subject on which you might suppose I’d be an expert. I didn’t even know whether to call myself a Prod or a Proddy (Proddie? I believe the name appears only in the plural in Colin’s book, so he was no help.) I knew to call him and his people Micks but I didn’t know what they called me. How could I, when we had nothing to do with each other? Not a conscious decision we ever questioned, more something bred in our bones.
Unlike Colin, I was born in Belfast. He was born in Birmingham, England, although his parents moved him back to their Northern Irish home when he was two months old. Discovery of where he’d been born was enough for his schoolboy fellow Catholics to accuse him of being one of the hated English.
I could fill a book with what I don’t know about Northern Ireland, the place I lived until I got out when I was 17. Until recently I thought the Battle of the Boyne, a victory by William of Orange which Ulster Orangemen celebrate with an inflammatory parade every July 12, took place in Holland! Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know that Northern Ireland measures roughly only 60 by 60 miles. I thought it was quite a large country, almost none of which I’d ever visited. (How in God’s name could I have so little curiosity about the place where I grew up? One reason: I was trying to forget it.)
Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know not only quite the extent to which Northern Irish Catholics’ hatred of the Brits consumed them, but also how Northern Irish Catholic nationalists despised Irish Catholic nationalists from the south, responsible for abandoning them to the Brits. (We Prods didn’t hate the English, we just thought they were sissies. On the first of my only two visits back to see my family, they melted into puddles of embarrassment in the drizzle at the airport because I’d got into the habit of carrying an umbrella. Real Ulstermen didn’t carry umbrellas. Though I could write another book listing the ways in which most of the men I grew up with didn’t and don’t fit my notion of what a real man is.)
I’m not entirely stupid. I have a summa cum laude degree from Columbia and two master’s degrees to prove it. I have perfectly logical—almost perfectly convincing—explanations for why I’m so ignorant about a topic on which I should be an expert. And I can explain at least one of the reasons I assumed Colin Broderick and I must have a lot in common. We are agreed on the truth about the topic on which Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants so bitterly disagree. I, a Northern Irish Protestant, had no right to be in Northern Ireland. MORE TO COME
I meant to begin with a few sentences written by another author, and briefly fool you into thinking I’d written them. The author is Colin Broderick; his book is That’s That, a memoir of growing up in the Northern Irish Troubles. My purpose was to prove that despite the differences you may see in us—the overriding difference being that he’s Catholic and I’m Protestant—we were more similar to each other than to anyone who wasn’t raised in Northern Ireland. But although I read That’s That with the express purpose of finding those sentences that would prove our similarity, I couldn’t find them, not on any of Colin’s 359 pages. Not a sentence that I could honestly pass as entirely belonging to me. There were too many differences, almost all created by how our country raised us.
Maybe I haven’t thought this subject through sufficiently (or ever could). Which is what I was taught by the country where I grew up: Thinking strongly discouraged, but if you must think, don’t talk about what you think. Or write about it. Not if you were a Protestant from the North. If you were a Catholic from the South, you could at least churn out masterpieces. All you risked was being banned or sent to hell.
Yet on a personal emotional level Colin Broderick and I are as similar as twin brothers raised under the same roof (except for minor differences such as sexual preference and the 30 years’ age gap). We grew up giving the finger to the British government -controlled education system that prohibited us from learning the history of our country. Our Irish mothers stuck to their traditional role of cooking and cleaning, talking to us only to issue mostly empty threats about what would happen if we didn’t stop doing what they said it was wrong to do. (At the end of Colin’s book his mother finds her voice at last, rather too conveniently for the shape of the memoir, I thought. Colin’s Dad is a silent unexamined presence; mine was that depressed skeleton in the corner after he retired as a postman.)
Colin and I took it for granted that a blackout binge was a rite of manhood to be sought out as early as you could fool the bartender about your age, not that they ever much worried about checking. (I spent the first few pounds of the advance on my first novel Aubade sampling every drink my best friend and I could think of at a pub on the Bangor seafront.) Colin and I early discovered the joys of jerking off, and indulged frequently despite the punishments we assumed were inevitable: he feared eternal damnation, I thought I’d grow an extra testicle every time I had an orgasm. And we’re both angry little buggers. But more of that later. MORE TO COME
I remembered the Belfast railway station as a lofty Victorian-era iron-and-glass terminus where I’d bought my first whisky at the age of 14 or 15, a walk from the city center across a bridge over the Lagan. When I was a child horses still pulled coal carts over the cobblestones. Today’s station (the last time I was back in 2000) was a simple walk from my hotel to what looked like a flimsy small-town bus station for the poor and the old in a car society, no pub that I remember noticing.
I’d taken the train from Bangor to Belfast when I escaped from the house, to a picture in one of the big Belfast cinemas on a Saturday afternoon, or maybe on my half-day after I got a summer job when I was 14 in a tiny general store. Or maybe I went to spend the money I’d stolen from the till on a cheap record player at Smithfield Market. A few times I got to travel alone late at night to the Ulster BBC (I think on Ormeau Avenue) to rehearse and play troubled children in radio plays. After my voice broke (I started making strange grunting choking noises at unpredictable moments) I auditioned for adult roles, but with no guidance I chose for my audition an American poem that included the words “on glory of split bourbon float.” I pronounced “bourbon” as if it were a French king, and I swear I heard a man in the control booth having hysterics. As usual, ignoring the laws of consequences, I continued hoping to be called for an adult part.
Maybe on those late night train journeys I hoped for a replay of what I’d read about in the racier but unsuccessful alternative paper to our stodgy Bangor weekly The Spectator. A disgusted reader reported coming across two men in an otherwise deserted carriage, one hiding on the floor, another feeling his crotch. I’m sure that letter fueled my already busy masturbatory fantasies, but I doubt I’d have gone through with a similar opportunity if it had been offered to me. Once, sitting near the front row at the Adelphi cinema on Main Street in Bangor, a man had felt my crotch. I knew what I was getting into when I sat next to that young man: lust radiated from his tight light-colored trousers, his knees spread wide. But I chickened out and fled.
Not soon enough to avoid the couple in the foyer. “There’s that thing,” the woman said. I ignored them, my cheeks burning, afraid to make eye contact in case I knew them, which would entail unavoidable unthinkable shameful consequences. One night in a BBC rehearsal studio, the juvenile lead walked over to me and thrust his crotch an inch away from my face in full view of the rest of the cast while I sat on the floor. I kept my head bowed until he moved away, but I remembered wondering where we’d go to do it. The lavatory, I supposed.
That day back in Bangor in 2000 for the first time in 30 years (longer, more like 40 years, since the last time I only came back to Northern Ireland as far as Belfast) I found myself in another lavatory in an arcade on Main Street. I’d had a hefty slice of Christmas fruitcake with marzipan paste and white icing hard enough to break a tooth on (yummy) and needed to go. When I came out of the stall there were too many idling men and two policemen hovering, as if deciding who to confront. I made brief cool uninterested eye contact, a good thing to do whether you’re guilty or innocent, washed my hands and left. In a stationer’s store on the same side of Main Street (it was a Sunday, but to my astonishment the shops were open, the street far busier than it had ever been on a weekday when I was a kid) I noticed a solitary copy of Gay Times. But as I left a hostile voice said to its female companion: “As long as he’s not gay.”
On second thoughts, it’s vast progress for that shite to openly acknowledge even the possibility that a son of his might turn out gay. MORE TO COME
The last time I went home to Northern Ireland was in December 2000 from San Francisco, and that was the first time since 1970, just before I moved from London to New York. In 1970 I was in Belfast only for the day, under the radar, to interview the wife of a psychiatrist, never mind why. I told no one this was the city I’d been born in.
We made the TV news when the evening plane returned to Belfast for an emergency landing. The young reporter for the Belfast Telegraph who interviewed me after we slid down the chutes got my last name wrong, and invented the words he put in my mouth, every word, comma and full stop. I supposedly told him the air hostesses stayed cool as cucumbers (the only one I noticed was shaking) and an old lady knitted calmly as we landed (old ladies with knitting needles risked becoming dangerous projectiles in a crash).
I stayed frozen from feeling during the landing, able to hold and comfort a small girl as we waited in the drizzle for the buses to take us back to the terminal, until she remembered she’d been told to avoid contact with strange men. I was still frozen when I went back in 2000 from my home in San Francisco. I went back to see the place where I’d grown up because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and a trainee at a therapy internship had assured me I had unfinished business there, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I might surprise any surviving family.
I’d booked a room in the Belfast city center for four nights, though I ended up staying that long only because I’d prepaid the hotel and the penalty to change the plane ticket was too high. On the two mornings I no longer wanted to be there I watched from my window as Protestant schoolboys trudged through the rain to Inst, the downtown grammar school where boys are offered an excellent education. I went to a grammar school in Holywood, between Belfast and Bangor, the seaside town where I grew up, and mostly refused the good education it offered.
I was born a 15 minutes’ walk from that Belfast hotel, in the Midnight Mission on Malone Place on October 20, 1939. I may yet go back for good: You can rent a three-bedroom terrace house for £600 a month on Malone Place these days, about a quarter what it costs to rent a studio apartment in San Francisco, which is becoming uninhabitable for anyone but the permanently wealthy and the temporarily rich IT workers. But the Midnight Mission is gone since 1981. It was founded in 1860 to provide a home for the night to the women and girls found by charitable ladies in the Belfast pubs. Later a room was set aside for the confinements of unmarried mothers. But my mother was not homeless or unmarried or drunk when she gave birth to me in the Midnight Mission. MORE TO COME