Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction

Ian Sansom is a true gent, and if you’ve never picked up one of his hilarious novels you should. This feature on Sansom and his latest novel, The Bad Book Affair, appeared in The Sunday Herald on Sunday 24 January.

A prominent Northern Irish politician involved in a sensational sex scandal. Accusations of dodgy dealings in the corridors of power. Restive natives in Ulster’s bible-belt. The closing chapters of the Robinson saga have not yet been written but already a book has been published about it. Or at least so it would seem to anyone picking up a copy of The Bad Book Affair, the new novel from Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom.

The fourth instalment in Sansom’s popular detective series The Mobile Library, The Bad Book Affair features a duplicitous unionist politician, marital infidelity, accusations of financial impropriety – and all set against the backdrop of growing instability in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and a looming election. Throw in a duffel-coat wearing, crime-solving Jewish librarian called Israel Armstrong and a four-wheeled library trundling along the north coast of Ireland and the result could almost pass as a tongue-in-cheek précis of the last few weeks in Northern Irish politics. In a literary career spanning more than a decade, Sansom has seen life imitate art often enough not to be surprised by The Bad Book Affair’s remarkable verisimilitude. ‘Am I surprised by the similarities? No, the amazing thing, for me, is that other people are surprised by it,’ the hirsute writer remarks, peering over his reading glasses.

‘Novels hold up a mirror to the real world. In any good work of fiction you will always get soundings and reflections from real life. What surprises me is that more people don’t pick up on these similarities more often.

‘If literary history teaches us one thing, it is that people are bad,’ he says, his glance momentarily resting on a banks of shelves overflowing with well-thumbed classics from literary heavyweights such as Roth, Faulkner and Bellow that occupies the back wall of his second floor office in the Seamus Heaney centre in Queen’s university, Belfast.

‘Obviously when it is people in public life it gives it an extra piquancy but we are all capable of lying, cheating, stealing. The ramifications of a politician’s actions are potentially more serious but the actual actions in themselves just reflect the truth of our sad, pathetic little lives.’

Such a pessimistic view of life seems entirely at odds with the witty, garrulous and light-hearted character in whose company two hours appears to pass in a mater of minutes. But Sansom, in an uncharacteristically serious moment, explains why he sees no such contradiction. ‘We are all flawed – that is the story of humanity. If you read the bible, on page one you’ve got this wonderful idyll, turn to page two and its over. Really it’s all downhill from there. Adam, Eve, Saul, Kane and Abel. They are all just giving us a way to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad,’ he says.

Citing scripture to support your opinions is all too common in Northern Ireland, quoting Flaubert, Gogol, Polonius and Goethe (as Sansom does freely) markedly less now. Having grown up in Southend-On-Sea, Sansom spent his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Oxford, where he wrote a PhD thesis on the poetry of WH Auden. Today, his accent, an unusual hybrid of muted estuary English and received pronunciation, retains telling traces of both home and alma mater.

Like Israel, The Mobile Library series’ ill-fated protagonist, Ian Sansom moved from London to Northern Ireland; although while his anti-hero crossed the Irish Sea alone, the author made the journey with his wife, a BBC journalist born in Belfast, and their young family. Sansom is understandably reluctant to identify himself too strongly with his bumbling character’s search for purpose along the Antrim coast, but he does admit sharing one significant trait with Israel – a deep-seated fondness for libraries.

‘I didn’t grow up in a bookish household so libraries were always where I gravitated towards,’ Sansom says, his speech quickening noticeably as he recalls the mobile library that routinely visited his primary school: ‘I thought it was a genuinely magical experience. It was almost like the circus was coming to town, there was so much to enjoy. I probably wanted to run away with the mobile library, too.’

In his younger days, Sansom even conducted romances among the aisles. ‘I first kissed my wife in Cambridge university library.’ Can he remember where exactly? I ask. Of course he can: ‘It was in the lift in the west wing. I was an old smoothie back then,’ he laughs before outlining his belief in the sexual allure of libraries. ‘They have a certain unmistakeable erotic charge to them. Libraries hum with possibility and change. You are coming into a place where possibilities become endless. Have you ever noticed in Hollywood blockbusters how many riddles get solved in libraries? It’s no coincidence.’

Sansom gives the impression of a writer born into his craft but he maintains that the transition from pursuing the bookshelves to appearing on them was not as seamless as his impressive cv suggests. ‘After I finished university I was writing and also doing lots of different jobs during the day. I would write a chapter in a couple of days and then forget about it and move on to something else. I was effectively binge writing.’

Like many prone to binging, it was only an encounter with a fellow sufferer that straightened him out. ‘I was working as a painter and decorator when I bumped into a novelist, a proper novelist. I asked him “how do you do it?” He just said to sit down and write 500 words a day everyday. Since then I’ve applied the rule of regularity.’ And, as the multiple copies of his various books and side projects gathered around his writing desk attests, Sansom has been a writer ever since.

The subtly bookish atmosphere at the Heaney centre, where Sansom lectures on Queen’s highly regarded creative writing program, seems to suit the author well. His office looks more like a traditional writer’s study; framed ordnance survey maps of Northern Ireland on the walls, an antique tea set in the corner. Life seems agreeably slow: we meet during term time, but there are precious few students about. Indeed, our conversation is only disturbed once, by a gentle knock on the door. It is Ciaran Carson, the esteemed Belfast poet and Sansom’s colleague at Queen’s, with a question about marking schemes.

Creative writing as an academic discipline has its critics, and Sansom admits to misgivings over his own suitability for such a course of study. ‘I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being a creative writing student.’ Nevertheless, he does ‘believe in teaching creative writing.’

‘You can teach people craft and technique, which is essential for a writer. But what you can’t do is to teach them to have ideas.’ Ideas are one thing Ian Sansom has never been short of, though precisely which ideas he decides to work on next has probably never interested so many. Neither Iris nor Peter Robinson are renowned for their interest in literature but both could be forgiven for taking an interest in the follow-up to The Bad Book Affair.

‘Everyone is asking ‘what are you writing about next?’, as if I have some remarkable insight into the future. If that was the case I’d probably write about the winning numbers for the national lottery. Or about salvation and redemption. Now that does seem rather topical.’

The Bad Book Affair is out on January 25 published by Fourth Estate.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan

Belfast's Booming?

Feature on how small retailers in the North have been affected by shoppers (and their cash) coming over the border. First appeared in Sunday Business Post 03/01/2010.

On Chichester Street, in the centre of Belfast, the lines of southern registered coaches have become a familiar sight. Every day they arrive, at weekends as many as 15 or 20, disgorging day trippers from Dublin, Sligo and elsewhere into the nearby Victoria Square centre.

Cross-border shopping is certainly big news for Northern Ireland’s retailers but small businesses are finding it difficult to cash in on the influx of southern shoppers. ‘I’ve not seen any significant increase in my southern trade,’ said Alister Beverley, proprietor of Yoke, a small designer label clothing store on the opposite side of Donegall Square from Victoria Square. ‘Everyone thinks we’re doing great up here on the back of it but the truth is that most of the trade goes straight into the Victoria Square and Castlecourt.’

According to figures released recently by the Central Statistics Office, shoppers from the Republic spent about 435 million euro in Northern Ireland in the 12 months to July. Cross-border shopping is thought to have cost upwards on 11,000 jobs in the Irish Republic, but, according to Beverley, it is multinational chains that are really benefiting from the drift of shoppers northward.

‘It’s the High Street stores that are doing well. The irony is that the money (southern shoppers) are spending isn’t really staying in the north – it’s mostly going across the water (to Britain). Obviously it’s creating some jobs here but the money is leaving the country so it’s not really helping the economy in the long-term.’

The weak pound has been one of the main factors motivating Irish shoppers to cross the border, but Beverley believes that the conversion rate might be harming small retailers in the north more than it is helping them.

‘Most of the brands that I sell are bought in euros so I can’t really sell them any cheaper than I can in euros. Anything that is sourced within this country, retailers will be better off with but for anything that is paid for in euros or dollars or from the Far East you’re losing out. For me the whole thing has been a pain – I wish it had never happened. Due to the euro rate my prices have gone up 10%. The sooner it goes back to normal the better,’ Beverley said.

Around the corner in the Bureau, a trendy men’s clothing shop housed in a former Presbyterian Dining Hall on Howard Street, co-owners Paul Craig and Michael Hamilton agree that smaller retailers have not benefited from cross-border trade to the same extent as high street stores and shopping centres.

‘The number of southern customers coming through our doors has increased but not massively. I would have expected to have more, to be honest. As it is, the percentage of our custom that comes from the south is so small that it barely registers,’ commented Craig.

Throughout the 1980s Belfast was popular with Irish shoppers, mainly due to its wide selection of UK high street stores, but during the1990s significant amounts of local trade was lost to Dublin. Hamilton believes Belfast is only now making up for lost ground. ‘For 15 years there was no need for southern shoppers to come to Belfast. And during the boom times lots of northern trade went south too, mainly because sterling was so strong – 1.4, 1.5 to the euro. It’s only in the last two years that the situation has reversed and we’re seeing more shoppers come north,’ he explained.

Last week’s budget attempted to stem the exodus of Irish shoppers north, reducing Vat and slashing duty on alcohol, but David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland believes more needs to be done. ‘While the drivers for customers going north are primarily food and alcohol, a lot of supplementary items are being purchased,’ he remarked.

Fitzsimons calls for reductions in rent and wages, to allow retailers in Ireland to match their counterparts across the border. ‘There’s massive money going out of the economy to the north. Irish retailers have been priced out of the market by the government. We are uncompetitive and until something is done to tackle this the problems will remain,’ he said before adding that expected Vat increases and new minimum pricing on alcohol in the UK should see a contraction in cross-border shopping in 2010.

In Newry, closer to the Irish border, John Kehoe, Marketing Manager of Kehoe Kars, feels that perception that all of Northern Ireland is profiting from cross-border trade is misplaced. ‘There is a misconception that the private retailers are getting all this business but they are not. Customers from the south are driving in the Dublin Road and turning into the two shopping centres [Buttercrane and the Quay’s], they’re not coming up into the town,’ Kehoe said from his forecourt on the Old Warrenpoint Road. ’Twenty years ago when we had busloads of people coming up from the south it was the private retailers that benefited but now it is the multinationals.’

While Kehoe accepts that the motor industry in the north has seen cross-border business grow he has little sympathy for traders on the opposite side of the border. ‘Southern retailers might complain about the loss of business but we have been in the same position ourselves for the last 10 years. All it takes is a fall in the euro rate for everything to flip around again,’ he commented.

Recently, many auto traders along the border have targeted their business model directly at customers in the neighbouring jurisdiction. With new cars registered in the Irish Republic and satellite dealers in the south buying and selling used vehicles it has never been as easy for customers in the south to buy cars in the north. Nevertheless, John Kehoe maintains that cross-border trade is ‘a bonus’ that cannot be relied upon as a long-term engine for business growth. ‘Our bread and butter is trying to retail here in Northern Ireland. That is what we are focused primarily on, and it is a difficult task because there’s a recession on here too and we have had large-scale redundancies too.’

Boucher Road, on the southern outskirts of Belfast, is home to many of Northern Ireland’s main car dealerships. Here, too, cross-border trade is up but retailers believe that it is currency considerations that will ultimately dictate whether southern customers decide to head north.

‘I suspect that while there is still value in the pocket there will be people coming north,’ said Peter Gordon, Sales Manager of Charles Hurst. ‘The strength of the euro has been the big draw in terms of bringing people across the border, and while that is still the case I would expect our cross-border trade to hold up. If that changes then we are likely to see a change.’

Southern Shoppers Making a Night of It
Last year record numbers of visitors stayed overnight in Belfast, among them many southern shoppers. The five-star Merchant Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the Victoria Square shopping centre in the heart of the bustling Cathedral Quarter, is proving particularly popular with Irish shoppers. ‘We have seen a huge increase in our southern customers, both during the week and at the weekend,’ said Lisa Scott, the Merchant’s Sales Manager. ‘Sometimes up to 50% of our business at the weekend is from the south, particularly from Dublin and from the west coast, Donegal and Sligo.’

Scott credits the marked improved the political situation in Northern Ireland over the last decade as one reason why shoppers from the Irish Republic are choosing to spend a night or two in the city. ‘Belfast is a much safer place to come to now. It’s an unexplored place that many people in the south have never been to and they want to come and see. It’s a new experience for them,’ she commented.

The Merchant has long been a popular corporate hotel, but Scott has noticed a change among business customers from the south. ‘A lot of people are looking to negotiate much harder with corporate rates. We get a lot of people from the Republic trying to bargain, saying “We can get this in Dublin for 80 euro a night, will you match that?”, but thankfully we are in a position where we don’t need to bargain.’

Seacht Shocks

Think Skins crossed with a particularly risqué episode of Hollyoaks. Think a campus novel penned by Alan Warner with a cast of characters that owe more to Trainspotting than Trading Places. Throw in a cúpla focail Gaeilge (for the non-Gaeligoirs out there, that’s a few words of Irish) and you’ve pretty much got Seacht, BBC NI’s Irish language soap.

Seacht (pronounced shocked) is set in and around Queen’s and follows a group of inordinately attractive university students as they while away their youth taking drugs, having copious amounts of sex and, eh, speaking lots of Irish.

It’s Irish, Jim, but as we know it.

I’d seen ads for Seacht (apparently now in its second season) but had to wait until Monday night for my first, eh, taste of the action when it appeared after the excellent Into the Storm. I was still digesting Brendan Gleeson’s excellent turn as Churchill when Seacht’s tumultuous opening salvo hit – a shot of a couple of scrawny teenagers popping pills cuts to a girlfriend stumbling on her SO in bed with her sister the morning after.

seacht320xI’ll confess I was rapt for the rest of the 25-minute long episode not so much by the quality of the drama but its sheer, undeniable WTF factor. Buckfast in the Botanics. Check. An Irish-language call girl agency. Check. A raunchy modelling shoot. Cheek. On top of that was enough sex scenes (nude free, of course) to satisfy any reader of Nuts and a fair whack of dope smoking and heavy drinking.

My extensive research (also known as a quick google search) suggests Seacht is a joint production between BBC NI and TG4, the Irish language station based in Galway. As a Mexican (proudly born and raised south of the border) I’m well used to TG4’s worthy but dull Irish language programs and dramas, but Seacht is as far removed from Ros na Rún – the station’s stalwart soap offering – as the Holylands is from Connemara.

Whether Seacht, which airs on both BBC NI and TG4, will succeed in making Irish cool in the north remains to be seen. Certainly the depiction of Queen’s as a red brick institution brimming with effusive – not to mention insatiable – Irish speakers is apocryphal. But perhaps that’s the point. No ordinary college milieu, for the characters of Seacht Irish is as ubiquitous as sex, drugs and hard liquor.

I’d hazard a guess that Seacht isn’t quite what De had in mind for the Irish language, but then again neither was the Good Friday Agreement. As for me, I’ll be watching again, if only to spot the Irish speaking PSNI officers and see how the, excuse the pun, shocking bizarre love triangle turns out.

Peter Geoghegan

Marcus du Sautoy

Last week I spoke with Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and author of numerous popular science books, for CultureNorthernIreland. As well as proselytizing about science as the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science (taking over from Richard Dawkins), he’s a keen footballer, musician and actor…but maths remains his one true love:

It was never cool in school, but maths is finally getting the cred it deserves. From A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe as game theory specialist John Nash, to Michael Frayn’s story of the birth of quantum physics in Copenhagen, numbers are big bucks at the box office. Heck, even as I write this I’m listening to the maths driven glitches and loops of electronica stalwarts Autechre.

One man who understands numbers, and their potency, better than most is Marcus du Sautoy. The 44-year old is professor of mathematics at Oxford and one of the discipline’s most vocal and articulate proponents.

‘I think there is a fascination with the power of mathematics,’ the mathematician explains, speaking ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

‘It is a powerful, almost mystical language, and people are in awe of it because of its power to make predictions. If you look at Google, for example, it works on very powerful mathematics to throw up searches so fast that it almost seems like magic.’

dusautoy320xGarrulous, friendly and deeply passionate about his profession it is a hard to imagine a better ambassador for maths than du Sautoy. Whether chatting to Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 Live or writing in The Guardian and The Independent he has consistently explained difficult, abstract concepts to the hoi polloi in a way few of his peers can.

Du Sautoy is also the author of numerous popular science books including The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine. His latest work, The Numb8r My5teries (yes, that is the correct spelling), was released earlier this year and deals with the thorny subject of symmetry – something I confess to know little about.

‘Symmetry expresses internal relations in an object,’ du Sautoy says, not exactly illuminating the concept. ‘Something has symmetry if there are more moves that you can make to it and it looks like the same.’

‘Like a Rubik’s cube?’ I volunteer.


Finally I’m beginning to follow. Apparently there are 25 digits in the number of symmetries it is possible to make with one of professor Erno Rubik’s ingenious moulded plastic blocks. ‘The amazing thing is that it only takes 17 moves to get back to the original state from any one of these symmetries,’ he remarks.

All very interesting, but what does it mean for our daily lives? Are symmetries really important? ‘It’s part of evolution to recognise symmetries. When you think about being in the jungle trying to survive if you see something with symmetry then it was likely to be an animal that would either eat you or that you could eat. So it’s pretty vital.’

Symmetries may be du Sautoy’s current squeeze but prime numbers remain his one true love. ‘They are the most important numbers because they are the building blocks of our universe,’ he says.

One number that has long enthralled Du Sautoy – and aficionados of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – is 42. As he explains, 42 might just be the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’ after all.

‘Forty-two is not a prime number but it has given us a hint that a clue to understanding prime numbers is something deep in physics.’ The venerable mathematician correctly interprets my silence on the line as lack of comprehension, turning to metaphor to clarify his point: ‘It’s a little like an archaeologist who sees patterns in Egypt and then goes off to South America and sees the same patterns there and begins to make links and connections.’

Building links between seemingly disparate lands is integral to du Sautoy’s other job, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Since becoming only the second holder of this prestigious post, succeeding the colourful Richard Dawkins in October 2008, du Sautoy has worked tirelessly to ensure that ‘science and society talk to one another’.

‘To have a mathematically literate society is integral to our future – I think even Gordon Brown is starting to realise that a scientifically literate society is the key to a robust economy,’ he says.

Marcus du Sautoy is a man with a mission, to show the world the blinding light of science, whether they like it or not.

‘Sometimes we forgot that people like being exposed to difficult ideas. We molly-coddle them too much.

‘In my talks and my books I basically say “I’m going to push you. You’re not going to understand it all but you will get something out of it.” That’s the secret.’

David Peace

I’d a really engaging half-hour chat with Yorkshire’s finest this morning. He talked plenty about Walter Benjamin, Johnny Giles and old Big Head but for legal reasons left most of it off the record. But here’s a few of the things we did talk about for a feature on CultureNorthernIreland ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

davidpeaceWill this be your first time in Belfast?

Yes. Obviously when you grow up in the UK in the 1970s Belfast has a kind of presence in your life as a place that is always there but that you have never been to… or ever dared go. But I will be back here again. The book after next is about (Harold) Wilson and (Margaret) Thatcher in the 1970s, so there is a strong Irish dimension. I’ll need to go to Belfast and Dublin to do more research for that.

When did you start writing?

I started when I was about eight years old. I think it was because my dad was a teacher but he wanted to be a writer. Every night after tea he would go upstairs and write.

Was your father ever published?

No, but from the age of eight I was writing pretty much continuously. When I was 11 or 12 I did more comic book stuff and then when I was a teenager in bands I was writing lyrics. But I’ve always had notebooks on the go, dating back to about 1974.

Your books all deal with historical events. Why?
I’ve always used writing as a way to understand living. If not I don’t really see the point of it. The Red Riding Trilogy and GB84 was a way to understand the place I grew up. The Tokyo books were a way to understand the place I was living in. It really is quite straightforward.

Do you think there has been a turn to historical fiction in recent years?
Story-telling has always been historical. To me the weird thing has been these novels about nothing that we have been inundated with for the past 10-15 years. If you go back to Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas or even Finnegan’s Wake, they are all ways of telling the story of a people. I think history and stories are almost the same thing. Story-telling can be escapist but I think that is really quite a recent development.

Do you find it difficult to write about the past?

The problem is always perspective. I remember after the twin towers were attacked Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and all these people were writing about it and I was just thinking ‘What can you possibly write about this? What do you know about this?’ and the answer is ‘nothing’, it was all ego.

People often say to me ‘why don’t you write about now?’ But what is ‘now’? How can you write about now? People writing about Blair and the Iraq War, that is just journalism. I’m deeply suspicious of fiction about the recent past. You need distance and time to be able to contemplate an event fully.

As a writer, is it difficult to deal with criticism?
I suppose it comes down to some innate arrogance or contrariness, but I don’t mind criticism. I have a very low of opinion of The Guardian and what I call ‘literary London’. With the last book, Occupied City, some people were saying ‘he murdered a good story’. But I set out to make an anti-crime novel – a novel against what the crime novel has become in our society – so while these reviewers were trying to be negative they were actually proving that I succeeded in what I set out to do in the book.

The Damned United was also heavily criticised, but by people within the football world. How did you react to that?
The important thing to remember is that The Damned United is a novel. I did research it as much as I could, there is even a bibliography at the back, but the characters are all my own. That people would read the book as truth means that they are stupid enough to mistake my name for Brian Clough. The irony is that while I dramatised scenes and characters I didn’t stray that far from the public record.

In a way a controversy was started out of the nothing. When I was writing the book it never crossed my mind that it would upset anybody. I didn’t think there was anything in it that didn’t reflect the public record. It was well known that Brian Clough liked a drink and used profane language in the company of others.

If I was to write a novel about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe nobody would bat an eyelid – in fact, I’d probably win a prize for it. But to write a book about a football manager, that is something you shouldn’t do.

You are currently writing about Japan after the Second World War. Why does this interest you?
Everything that modern Japan (where I lived for 15 years) is was kind of formed in the American occupation. Every aspect of legal and political life in Japan in 2009 dates back to the seven years of the American occupation. With Occupied City and the new book I’m writing now I have tried to broaden it out because I think there is a relevance to the West now. In a way we all live in occupied cities. I hope the Tokyo trilogy works both on a historical level and in the western world in 2009.

What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on Resurrected, the last of the Tokyo trilogy. Then it’s a history of the UK from 1967 to 1984, which will be a very long book.

You’re written eight novels in ten years. How are you so prolific?
I often have books going on simultaneously. Also I only want to write 12 novels in total, and I’ve always known what these will be. That definitely helps.

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland

Feature from latest Sunday Business Post

August 15, 1969. Even those with the most cursory of interests in Northern Irish history will recognise the date of the British Army’s first deployment in Belfast. But for almost 40 years no photographic record of the soldiers’ arrival on the city’s streets existed, until an octogenarian with a photo box wandered into a gallery in the northern capital recently.

bombayoneGerry Collins, now 86, was the first photographer on the scene after a weekend of sustained and orchestrated attacks by loyalist mobs left most of Bombay Street, off the Falls road in west Belfast, ablaze. A keen lens man, he had brought his camera with him as he went to check on his elderly aunt in the area that fateful Sunday morning.

The pictures he took of wide-eyed, young soldiers cautiously walking down burned-out, rubble-strewn streets could have made Collins famous, but instead they lay filed away in his attic as the Troubles raged. Only a chance encounter with the social documentary-style photographs of Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Galley in Belfast city centre, persuaded the long-retired photographer to dust off his old Ilford prints.

‘Gerry came into the gallery,’ recalled Quinn, whose own work on the peace walls that divide Belfast won many plaudits. ‘He said he knew about my work, and that he had photographs that had never been seen before. I thought nothing of it until he came back a few days later, and brought with him these amazing photographs.’

Families loading belongings onto milk trucks, a priest from nearby Clonard Monastery addressing an anxious crowd, a man and boy surveying the rubble of what was once their house – the photos, collected in an exhibition entitled ‘Taken From The Ashes’, reveal the painful, intimate stories behind the Bombay Street riots.

bombaytwo‘This is the only record of that morning.’ Quinn explained, standing beside the old street sign for Bombay Street mounted alongside Collins’ stunning black and white images on the gallery’s whitewashed walls. ‘When he arrived on the street there were no other photographers there. He says he remembered one other guy coming in on the back of a British Army Landrover, jumping off, taking a picture and the jumping back into the jeep and away,’

Speaking about the images 40 years on, Collins said: ‘The firemen are still there dousing the fires, there are people moving their furniture, there are nuns giving people tea. The images were alive. You didn’t have to look for the pictures, they were just there in front of you, asking to be taken.’

And that’s exactly what Collins did. While countless colour shots of the area were taken in the days and weeks following the riots, his pictures shed a new, more humane light on the events of that traumatic weekend. Between the men skilfully manoeuvring a bed frame out of a second storey window and the harsh-faced women in beehive haircuts sitting intransigent in front of the makeshift barricades, a quiet, stoical suffering can be observed in almost every shot.

In one particularly memorable image tin-hatted members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, rifles half-cocked, wander the narrow red-brick terraces of Bombay Street, Clonard Gardens and Kashmir Street, quizzical looks etched on their faces. Elsewhere, photographs of soldiers sleeping on the ground and sipping tea with locals serve as poignant reminders of the warm welcome the army initially received in Republican areas across the north.

‘Originally the arrival of the troops was very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene,’ said Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University Belfast. ‘The reception they got on the streets was very favourable.’

Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. ‘The initial honeymoon period was followed by a rough period in which the army killed a lot of civilians and that turned opinion against them,’ remarked prof Guelke.

In February 1971, the first British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. ‘Army casualties in this period were very high. From 1976 on the army took a back seat in Northern Ireland,’ continued prof Guelke.

All told the army lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969, including two Sappers killed by the Real IRA in Antrim in February.

While the legacy of the British Army in the north streets still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival the loss of life on Bombay Street, August 15, 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Frankie Quinn agreed. ‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the British Army there’s no doubt it would have been a massacre. There would have been a lot more destruction and a lot more death, no doubt about it.’ As it was on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20.

In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many never to return. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that – in fact, the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast have increased from 26 to 80 since 1994.

For more info on the Red Barn Gallery, Bombay Street from the Ashes and Frankie Quinn’s amazing photography check out www.rbgbelfast.com

Orangefest aims to bridge the gap

Feature on the Orange Order’s attempts to turn 12th of July weekend into an Orangefest appeared in The Sunday Business Post.

orangefestMore than 100,000 people will gather in downtown Belfast tomorrow to watch the annual Twelfth of July celebrations. The customary flute bands, Lambeg drums and Orange standards will all be there, but so will local businesses as, for the first time, city centre traders open on the day.

Many of the city’s largest retailers and shopping centres will open their doors between 12.30pm and 4.30pm, after the parade leaves the town. The new initiative is part of a pilot scheme jointly coordinated by business leaders and representatives from the Orange Order.

It is the latest development in the ambitious rebranding of the controversial date as Orangefest, an inclusive, family-oriented event featuring on-street entertainment, circus acts and the traditional marching bands.

Now in its third year, Orangefest aims to create a festive atmosphere around one of the most contentious and divisive days in the Northern political calendar. But the age-old custom of retailers shutting their doors for the day did not help the organisers in the first two years.

‘‘Town was just completely dead once the parade passed,” said Billy Mawhinney, the festival development officer. ‘‘All the shops were boarded up and blocked. For tourists coming over, they couldn’t get a drink, something to eat or even a cup of tea.”

Funded by the Department for Social Development, Mawhinney’s post was created in 2006 – though not without controversy. Nationalists decried Orangefest as a sop to disgruntled unionists, while there was opposition from conservative factions within the Orange Order itself.

The event has also struggled to shake off the parade’s associations with sectarian violence and recreational rioting at interface areas, particularly in Belfast and Derry.
It is also hard to get away from the fact that it was traditionally a day when people from those cities left the North to go across the border. Now, the organisers are trying to get tourists to visit for the day.

Sitting in his office, a spacious wood-panelled room adorned with sabres and Union Jacks in an Orange Lodge on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Mawhinney acknowledged these points. But he was hopeful that Orangefest could broaden the Twelfth’s appeal beyond the North’s unionist population – and tap into the event’s unrealised economic potential.

‘‘We are convinced that the Twelfth can be a great economic driver, and that tourists are coming,” he said.

Andrew Irvine, head of the publicprivate partnership company Belfast City Centre Management, agrees. Since the turn of the year, Irvine has been working with Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Belfast City Council and the Orangefest organising committee to develop a dedicated business strategy around the day.

The Twelfth is a two-day public holiday in the North, and businesses have long pushed for Sunday trading to be extended to cover it – a particularly pressing concern, given the current economic climate.

‘‘From the retailers’ point of view, it makes perfect sense,” Irvine said of Monday’s half-day opening. ‘‘We are feeling the downturn, and it’s really important to keep shops open as much as possible.

‘‘What we are doing is making sure people have the opportunity to enjoy themselves and spend a few pound before they go away – it’s a no-brainer, really.”
A stg£23,000 grant from the European Union’s Peace III fund is being used by Belfast City Centre Management for a range of including hiring dedicated street cleaners to follow the parade, ensuring that shops will open on time.

For the first time, Orangefest has a small marketing budget, and the notoriously publicity-shy Orange Order has launched a major PR offensive, with colourful banners erected across the city centre and promotional material distributed to homes and businesses.

City centre retailers have broadly supported the new Twelfth opening hours. James Rider, manager of HMV in Belfast’s Donegall Arcade, said that the impact could be comparable with St Patrick’s Day in the chain’s southern stores.

‘‘It’s a fantastic opportunity, and we are expecting to get a lot of footfall into the store,” he said. ‘‘It’s basically a festival, so it should be a great day for us to sell.”

Rider said traders would benefit most if opening hours were extended to cover the times when the marchers were in the city, but the PSNI felt was still not viable. However, he welcomed the ‘‘normalisation of trading in the city centre’’.

‘‘This represents the reestablishment of a traditional holiday period, with lots of people coming into the city to enjoy the festivities,” he said. Whether or not tourists are actually travelling to Orangefest remains questionable.

According to Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, one of the event’s partners, the traditional dip in visitor numbers experienced in July – largely due to fears around personal safety during the marching season – has been reversed in the last five years.

In fact, Belfast’s hotel market records bed-night occupancies in excess of 80 per cent in the middle of July. However, a spokesman for the bureau said it remained too early to tell if tourists were coming to see the new Twelfth.

Irvine disagreed. ‘‘The Twelfth is the largest visitor number event in the calendar by a long shot,” he said. Last year, 7.1 million people visited Belfast, up from just half a million a decade ago. The organisers of Orangefest are keen to tap into this rapidly-expanding tourist market.

‘‘If people are here, wherever they are, we want them to come see it,” said Mawhinney. ‘‘We think we have a tourist product to be proud of.”

Since 2007, Orangefest has been working with Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), and a spokesman for NITB highlighted of the importance of ‘‘developing the positive aspects of this event’’. Members of the Grand Orange Lodge have even participated in welcome host training, with two achieving NITB-registered trainer status.

The Twelfth of July is still a fraught time for many across the North, but realising the full economic potential for the event could have real benefits for all, according to the organisers.

‘‘This is just the start of the journey,” said Irvine. ‘‘We are not going to transform the Twelfth overnight, and there is still some resistance to the changes, but in the long run, there is tremendous scope to make this work for everyone.”