SQ 25 Belfast Calling

Belfast City Hall

Entry 25: Belfast Calling-There are places of wonder, splendour, adventure and transcendence, I suppose. Most Saturday mornings, I sit on the northeast corner of our veranda and flip through the travel supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald as I sip coffee and listen to the radio. In winter, the sun is low enough to stream under the roof and warm my blood as well as that of the small lizards that bask on the red-brick wall opposite.

In summer, the sun is higher and the same corner is shaded and open to the cooling breeze. Why, then, would I want to be anywhere else? I notice that the grey dollar is avidly sought as cruise operators, glamping spruikers as well as the more traditional bus touring companies display their dream destinations in extravagant, adjective-strewn purple prose promising fulfilment of various kinds…of-a-lifetime, of course. To over-promise and under-deliver seems a feature of life today. Does “awesome” retain even a sliver of its original heft?

My dyspeptic cast of thought is not solely due to the advertising copy before me (some of it masquerading as travel writing) but the thought that I must return to the small box-room that I use as a writing post. There, I’ve left an excerpt from Letter III of a Congregationalist minister writing, in 1852, an account of his meeting with some of my forbears in a small house at the entry of a cul-de-sac in the slums of Belfast. Entitled Walks Among the Poor of Belfast…, it is one of the many printed exposés of the effects of extreme poverty in the industrial cities of the UK at the time.


The Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon recounts, the first house we entered was filled with sweeps…it is seldom that even one or two of these dusky ones cross our path without exciting…pity for them…as among the semi-barbarous thralls of society…a conclave of some ten or twelve of them, all duly begrimed, and by no means ashamed to shew their colours, is not an every-day sight. My ancestors of less than two centuries ago reminded the reverend person of, a Pandemonium, only very completely shorn of its terrible sublimity and partaking largely of the burlesque. Deep ignorance is, of course, the prevailing characteristic of this class.

Hardly surprising, if the following testimony is typical, inquiring of one, about eighteen years

chimney sweeps

of age, if he had ever been at school, his reply was, that he had gone to school when a child, for a few days, but, not being able to make anything of it, he had given it up and ever since he had looked upon “the larnin’ as a mighty strange thing.” George Bernard Shaw, in Pygmalion, has Eliza Doolittle’s father make the ironic distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor and I wonder if the well-meaning O’Hanlon felt he had discovered one of the former in this next extract:

In this singular group, however, we did find one lad able to read a little, and, having furnished him with the means, we set him to work, for his own benefit and that of his black brethren. What means? What work? I ask myself 163 years later, and I have a feeling there

th (8)Chimney Sweep

may be a script, poem, song or short story here. But I must put it on the long finger, to use an Irish expression from the time, because I would like to share with you the fact that the straitened circumstances in which the charitable Reverend found members of my clan were a des res in comparison to what was found in a nearby lane,

in truth, no pure breath of heaven ever enters here; it is tainted and loaded by the most noisome reeking feculence. Surely, we’ve reached the bottom of the pit? But no, there is yet a lower circle in this suburb of hell, still more narrow and wretched containing, I think, nine houses, seven of which, are the abodes of guilt…here every kind of profligacy and crime is carried on…passers of base coin, thieves and prostitutes all herd together…and sounds of blasphemy, shouts of mad debauch, and cries of quarrel and blood are frequently heard here through the livelong night to the annoyance and terror of the neighbourhood…it is the practice of these miscreants to frequent the docks, and, having caught sailors, like unwary birds, in their toils, to allure them into their pitfalls, where they are soon peeled and plundered.

Sounds a bit like Kings Cross of a Saturday night, doesn’t it? O’Hanlon did not live much longer after his encounter with my black brethren and I honour his memory. But, out here on the veranda, as I gaze at the artfully cropped photographs of tourist destinations far and near, I ponder on the images and accounts that are not submitted for my weekend perusal but that would replicate in substance what the Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon Ireland_Belfast_ire1_largediscovered in the city that was my first abode when I left my parents and began my tentative steps as a new husband, a new father and teacher-in-waiting as I dreamt of a new life in Australia:QANTAS 707

SQ 115 I Wish I Never Was

Entry 115: I Wish I Never Was– Sometimes, when you witness the glories of this earth, as, fora-creation-image example, you do, when viewing something like David Attenborough’s trilogy on the Great Barrier Reef, you sing hosannas to whatever forces have produced such splendour. All of my life, I have been entranced by films, exhibitions and documentaries on nature. From deep-sea fumaroles to deep-space imagery of unimaginably distant galaxies; from those infinitesimally small strings that, perhaps, may harmonise our existence to the immensity of all the possible multiverses, I have been enthralled by the mysteries of creation.

a-blessings-imageKnowing that I will never pierce the inner workings of any of these arcane mysteries, I content myself with just saying: thank you. Glad to be here. Hope I get to stay a bit longer. Lately, I have been counting my blessings. In youth and mid-life, I raged a fair bit about the injustice of it all. Particularly as it applied to me!

Now, I just sit on my back veranda and watch an old friend’s pigeons wheel in the sky above as he prepares them for a competitive flighta-bird-image next weekend; or sipping a glass of shiraz, I watch a neighbour putting in a new roof as I listen, on the radio, to Richard Glover talk about stuff that only people in Sydney and, at a stretch, New South Wales would care about.

And I laugh. It is just so great to be alive and part of this quotidian existence. Notice that I have used the word just a couple of times? I have used it, in each case, as an adverb meaning simply, but there is an underlying hook here. How is it just?

a-lake-imageWhile living rather modestly in the outer west of Sydney for the past twenty years, I am aware that my lot is so much better than that so many others who live in this relatively wealthy country of Australia. In the world, most people alive today are living in more straitened circumstances than I.

Most times, driven by the relentless round ofa-street-scene getting and spending, I have been able to push this reality to one side. But there are times when something lodges and refuses to be dislodged.

Lodgement One, New Year’s Eve, Singapore, 1978, in a taxi going back to our hotel, I see an old Chinese woman dragging a load of cardboard behind her: the taxi slows for traffic lights, and our eyes meet.

a-grocery-imageLodgement Two, it’s 1981 and I have just cashed a cheque from RTE radio in Dublin who have bought a radio play and I go into the supermarket to stock up on some luxuries. Ahead of me, a young woman in threadbare coat, trying to soothe a squalling infant, pushes her trolley with basic necessities to the checkout and rummages through her purse for coins to cover her meagre purchases. She glances at my basket of superfluous goodies and then up and into my eyes.

I could go on to enumerate a dozen such instances- but you get my drift. It’s not sufficienta-homeless-image merely to intone, there but for the grace of God go I. What do you do? And is it enough? In 1990, I watched a documentary film which was prompted by a report by Human Rights’ Commissioner Brian Burdekin into youth homelessness.

was shocked at the idea that there were up to 15,000 people under 18 in such circumstances. In 2007 Brian Burdekin raged at the lack of government action in the intervening years. Now, the figures stand at nearly 30,000. How’s that for progress?

a-burdekin-imageIn 1991, I was commissioned to write a musical play for a theatre in North Queensland. The play was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the theatre’s establishment. A friend, visiting from Ireland, had been having a few drinks with the theatre’s director and casually mentioned that I had written plays in Ireland.

So, I was asked to provide a draft that would involve various arts groups. I came up with a memory play that involved a young guy, homeless from childhood, who had travelled north from Sydney with his girlfriend, picking up infrequent odd jobs.

They cross paths with indigenous people and also befriend a young woman, a test subject at a medical research centre, who had fled from the facility. A tropical cyclone also makes an appearance. A group of musicians played behind a scrim and it was only in the final minutes of the play that the scrim flew revealing that the audience were not listening to a backing tape, but a live group- one of several sleights of hand involved with the production. The themes of homelessness, alienation, redemption were all at play and young dancers were choreographed skilfully into the whole.

The central character, at an early stage of the play, states his feelings of hopelessness ina-millstone the song that follows. Its epigraph, if it were to have one, would be Matthew 18:6, If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. There should be a run on millstones.