Entry 17: Is It a Dream? – I love Megastructures and all those other wonderful programs on The Discovery Channel and Nat Geo that explore the worlds of engineering, science and exploration. I have to watch these media offerings at times when my wife is not in the room. Just as she has to watch her favourite lifestyle and reality programs when I am otherwise engaged. There is no animosity attached to this for we have a range of shared favourites at prime-time. (Although, in the splintering media landscape- if a landscape can be said to splinter- such a term as media landscape may seem as quaint as quilting before too long.)
Now, I have referred to the patriarchal paradigm before in this series, and I would not be surprised if there is something in the idea that men and women are hard-wired to respond to differing ways of engaging with the world- but I am puzzled by the undoubted fact that I am, and always have been, a complete klutz when it comes to the more sophisticated operations in the area of fabrication, manufacture and the manipulation of the physical world. By more sophisticated, I refer to anything beyond replacing a light-bulb or putting up a shelf.
And yet, here you will find me, a 19-year old student on vacation back at home in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland watching enthralled as the live pictures of the Moon Landing on July 20, 1969 are relayed in glorious black and white to televisions around the world. Michael Collins, the command module pilot, had designed the insignia for the mission: an eagle holding an olive branch in its talons to signify the wish for peace to be a part of the symbolism of this historic event.
Oh! It was so good to get away from the tensions in Belfast where something wicked was building inexorably. Not much more than three weeks after what I consider the greatest achievement of human endeavour, a mob smashed through Bombay Street in West Belfast and the pogrom started: to quote from Belfast Galleries.com- on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls.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’. Over 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that!
Now, you can take tours of the peace walls of Belfast, take selfies in front of graffiti and never think at all that there is something weird about the fact that these walls have outlasted that icon of division in the Western world- the Berlin Wall. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall wrote Robert Frost in his widely anthologised poem, Mending Wall, published back in 1914. But his spirits didn’t have to reckon with the intractability of Irish hatreds.
Back in 1969, I responded to a call which went out over the radio for boarding students at my college to return early to help the refugees from the burnt-out streets. We hastily set up a reception centre in the college hall and had a crash course in how to be bureaucrats as we helped the bewildered victims fill in emergency relief forms. As I walked down the Falls and Donegall Roads of an evening to visit my girlfriend I could see the corrugated iron barricades going up on the side streets. There was fear in the air and I could feel the prickles on the back of my neck as I imagined being tracked through gunsights from the murky alley-ways I passed.
I listened to Radio Free Belfast at night and wondered what I was doing here. I remembered a schoolboy pact I had made with a friend, that we would visit Australia and watch the cane-fields burn as we worked our way across the exotic continent seemingly as distant as the moon. It wouldn’t be with my school buddy but my girlfriend who became my wife, with whom I would clamber aboard a QANTAS jet in September of 1972, our daughter of three months in our arms, and set off for Sydney.
Over forty years later, now retired, I sit on our back veranda in the winter sunshine and wonder whether ideas have the same solidity as steel, whether the imagery and imagination holding together my songs have the integrity of the International Space Station which journeyed past Venus and Jupiter between 5:31pm and 5:34pm on Wednesday last, another reminder of the astounding achievements possible when human beings work together and set aside ancient grudges to reach for the stars. But maybe we’ll end up like the oysters in this poem:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, /”To talk of many things:/Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax/Of cabbages and kings/And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings.”