Sunday, 2 April 2017

Nostalgia: it just ain't what it used to be

It was a pleasure to discover that my youngest son was visiting the family of our daughter-out-law this weekend. That took him to Belfast. And that took me back to some old memories, with feelings a little like nostalgia.

I say “a little like” because the word “nostalgia” suggests more attractive memories than those that came to my mind.

The first time I travelled to Belfast, I stayed in the Europa Hotel, reputed to be the most bombed in Europe. Indeed, when I arrived, one side of the hotel had all its windows boarded up after a bomb attack. To get in, I had to walk through a corridor with a chicane leading to a security area where luggage could be searched. Ironically, the whole cumbersome structure was unmanned, which was convenient since it saved me time, but also unnerving because it didn’t inspire much confidence in the security measures.

My room overlooked the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party with its sign, “Keep Ulster British”. That struck me as ironic since I was a Brit and little about the place struck me British.

Normally, alone in a new city, I’d wander out to get the feel of the place and find someone pleasant for a meal. I felt so afraid of those eerily empty streets that I found it hard to take the plunge on my first evening in Belfast. In the end, in order not to give way to simple cowardice, I walked quickly around the block opposite the hotel, saw nowhere that attracted me for dinner, and went back to order room service instead.

Later I got to know the city rather better, and had many of the classic experiences: driving without knowing it within a few hundred of metres of a major attack (the Ulster Defence Association’s shooting of Catholic civilians in a betting shop, leaving five dead and nine injured), asking directions of a flak-jacketed, machine-gun-toting policeman and being surprised by the cordiality of the answer, walking with other civilians through the middle of an army patrol…

A scene from 1971:
how civilians and soldiers mixed in Northern Ireland
I also learned to appreciate many of the ironies of the Northern Irish existence. For instance, the Ulster Defence Association that carried out the betting shop murders, was officially “loyalist”. Loyalty, it seemed, did not require respect for the law or traditions of the country, Britain, to which these gentlemen saw themselves as loyal. But then, outside the Northern Ireland Assembly building there still stands a larger-than-life statue of Sir Edward Carson, the man who raised an illegal army to fight the British government’s moves towards a timid measure of home rule in Ireland. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”, he proclaimed, and though a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, he mustered forces to support his claim. However, his treason was met not by imprisonment or the rope but by a statue to his memory.

Some years earlier, I had travelled to East Berlin. I landed in the West and took the Underground into the Eastern sector, seeing for the first time the dimly lit ghost stations of the East, closed to passengers and patrolled by armed policemen. When I emerged at Friedrichstrasse, the only station left open in East Berlin on that line, I also had to walk through a corridor with a chicane, but this one was far from unmanned, as I came around a corner nearly into the arms of a young policeman with a machine gun clutched to his chest.

Armed police in a Berlin ghost station
As in Belfast some years later, I was nervous about wandering out into the streets of East Berlin. I quickly realised, however, that East Berlin fulfilled a positively Thatcherite vision of urban peace (Maggie was firmly enthroned back then, made secure by Labour’s decision to equip itself with a leader no one was going to elect Prime Minister – oh, how we learn the lessons of experience): the streets were safe, with more police on view than anyone else. Only near the Brandenburg Gate did I feel nervous again: there was the wall, suddenly blocking off the great boulevard of Unter den Linden, with a small opening guarded by armed men, and the glare of the searchlights in the death strip beyond them.

Thinking back today to those two experiences, of Belfast in the Troubles and Berlin in the Cold War, made me realise that nostalgia will soon not be what it once was. The nastiness of those days had a quality of drama, inspiring many a novel or film: how often have you seen floodlights on barbed wire in spy films based in Berlin, or blacked-up British troops patrolling past IRA murals in films about Belfast?

Whereas today’s ghastliness has replaced drama by farce. People who don’t know what they’re wishing for have elected an unstable moron to the White House or voted to take Britain out of the European Union, without understanding the wound they’re inflicting on themselves.

On the other hand, the farce is a dangerous one. An unstable moron with his fingers on the nuclear button? Sheer slapstick, for sure – but hardly a laughing matter. 

I preferred the old nostalgia.

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