Been a while, sorry about that. I’ve been in complete survival mode lately, just trying to get through the days and collapsing at night, with Oisín’s sleep all over the place so I’ve been knackered.
But somewhere in the back of my mind- and often at the forefront- is, “Does it have to be like this?” Do I have to work full time in London and commute 3 hours a day and only see my baby before bedtime, and weekends (although luckily I can work from home once a week too) , and work in a fairly responsible well paid job and still have to claim housing benefit in order to put a roof over our heads, paying more than half my wages still to rent?
It’s a dilemma that is tediously ordinary- most people who live in London have had it. Many do leave. At the moment though, we have no choice. The other viable option is to move, “Home”- “home” to Belfast, and Belfast has no jobs. Especially not in my niche, very London-centric field. I still have some sad ambitions of being a writer and making money off that, but again, the other tedious dilemma (and truth) is that we rely solely and utterly on me to make sure we aren’t homeless and hungry, and that also traps me in full time work, and makes me afraid to take any risks. The pressure is massive and sometimes I feel like my brain is going to explode from it, but I’ve still stayed largely well so *fist bump* But the financial noose is tightening, and we will never be able to have another kid here.
Life is very short.
If someone handed me a wad of cash tomorrow and said, “Go back to Belfast”, I’m not sure I would. Belfast is the place I ran away from as a wild eyed, manic 17 year old. My parents always expected me to come back, each year, each phone call, and I never did. Now my mum has moved out of the hated house of so many teenage miseries, where my dad turned yellow and died, and I don’t have a real sense of attachment to where she is now, or to those memories. I was incredibly unhappy there. It was a small minded, petty, violent, frightening shithole. It gave me many an interesting tale to regale Kent dwellers who’d never seen a machine gun, but so many memories I would drown in the deepest if I could, and I have tried. As a weird teen I dodged bottles and stones and spittle and I couldn’t wait to leave and took the first chance I could to. Why would I go back? It’s defeat.
Brexit makes it all the more uncertain – economically, NI relies a lot on the EU, and should the border come up again there will be hell to pay.
But…but. My uncle was on YouTube the other day and he found this:
That’s my dad. That’s my dad, speaking, real and alive in 1998, vox-popped about the Good Friday Agreement in a graveyard. I haven’t heard his voice in a decade, I had forgotten it. Had forgotten how softly spoken he was when not drunk, and his wispy ever windblown hair. I had forgotten the smell of that coat- that very one, with pear drops packets always crumpled in the most remote pockets- the musty, male charity shop scent. I had forgotten that khaki grass and listless sky.
I didn’t cry when I saw this video, although I watched it in silence about 10 times. Then I showed it to my son (who at 17 months doesn’t understand, but will one day). I don’t know what I felt or feel watching it, sadness, longing, a certain sense of pride, nostalgia? A similar feeling I get on the taxi ride back from the airport when I visit, landscapes, all wrapped up indelibly in each other. The mountains and trees and the graffiti. Of being there and leaving at the same time. Sometimes I feel as though my dad has flattened and become part of it, instead of the person, but most times I know that’s because it’s a preferable feeling to the chest crushing grief and regret of his fullness and life and death.
I’m from West Belfast in Northern Ireland- from right here, to be precise:
I used to get incredibly angry when people said I wasn’t, “really Irish” because I was from the North. Because I was from West Belfast, which is poor, Republican, Nationalist, bilingual and which is an area that has suffered in every sense for it- economically, physically, emotionally- it felt like we had fought for the right to identify as Irish. That being really Irish is being a fighter. I was a right wee Chuckie when I was a kid, because you were, being from there. I tried to explain this badly on Twitter one evening, when the vote for bombing Syria was happening. As a kid, you can’t rationalise that there’s reasons for things, you don’t know the mechanics of the IRA, they weren’t the ones on our streets with machine guns, raiding our houses, and you will hate the occupying outside force with a greater strength and unite against them, no matter who the internal bastards are, if they’re not the bastards dropping bombs on your head. It will backfire. I was a kid at the end of the Troubles and still lived through stuff I’d rather forget. I tried to articulate having this feeling as a child, who hated the British army and bottled them gleefully, and was told to, “do one” and then blocked by a fairly well known TV journalist. I understand why, of course, but I’ve tried to explain a thousand things about being from there, and have failed and have never been understood once in the 14 years I’ve lived here, or it been understood I’m always talking from the perspective of a relative child.
The more I’ve tried to explain and failed, and the less I’ve been understood, the less I’ve minded being not, “really Irish”. Because I’m not. I’m Northern Irish. With different culture, frame of reference, art, really fucking awful TV programmes, slang, politics, worldview. I’m not a Nationalist, and I’m only a Republican in the true sense of the word, but I’m not really Irish. But the, “not really”, at least for me, gave me a shaky sense of belonging when growing up. A sort of unwanted feeling- the South didn’t want us (how as a child I wanted them!), the mainland certainly didn’t (fairly understandable really)- that I still sort of have now, living in London for my entire adult life. I’ve never felt like I belong here, either. You are, to an extent, whether you like or not, a product of your environment, and I don’t know how much my sense of ill fitting is just my personality or is a culture clash. I have quite a dark, morbid sense of humour, which strikes me as a Northern Irish trait, a doggish type of friendliness and energy, which also does and puts me at odds with quite a lot of people I met, I tend to say what’s on my mind and talk much more quickly than my thoughts are formed which means I talk a lot of shite. I find myself always trying to shut up. And speaking in generalities. I prefer myself when I’m in Belfast. But that could just be romanticising, just be trying to find a connection, a place called home.
I don’t feel at home here, but when I do get that throb for home, I don’t know where that is or what it means- if it’s qualities I have I wish I could share with people, or my family, or the landscapes (I got a bit emotional going through Yorkshire a few weeks ago, it wasn’t flat!) or the sense of humour, or the people. Whether it’s inside of me, or outside with my husband and son, or everywhere, or even in bits of London that I would miss massively. I moved a lot as a kid and I continued to when I moved to London. I’ve moved 10 times in 14 years, to find home, and I still haven’t. Whether it ever existed at all, or would again, or what it would be. I’m not and never will be English, and feel such a sense of shame over England politically I often don’t want to live here.
The closest I’ve come to pinpointing it was when I watched the Irish animated film, Song of The Sea, just after my child was born. It’s rich with mythology, beauty and humour, and is a study of grief and loss. And mythology was a way I made sense of my own feelings as a child. To understand my own sense of not – belonging, I used to walk around my parent’s room with a mirror that had broken off a dressing table. I tried to get into that world beyond, the mirror world that existed in our own, the Tir na Óg. I’d try to lose myself in the farmlands behind our house and talk to the horses and birds and imagine they understood me.
But that is hiraeth because it can never be returned to, it doesn’t and never did exist.
How will Oisín understand himself or his feelings, with what reference? Where will he belong or feel at home? Watching a documentary about London back in the day, expansive, diverse, grand and historical, I thought if we moved him out of here he’d hate us for it. But it’s also transient, and many people we love face the same dilemmas and move on, but also probably will in Belfast as adults, as I did.
I don’t know whether I want to bring up my kid in a place of my defeat but I wouldn’t live in West Belfast anyway. Robert feels Belfast as home- that one brief year he lived there affected him deeply- but it’s his home, birth home (not house, but place), we live in now, in Streatham. And I like that, that forever and forever, our son will be from the same place as his dad, no matter where we go. Belfast would have cousins for our son and people who could pronounce his name (although to be fair I’m sometimes unsure myself if I’m saying it right, because the South and North pronounce it completely differently). Belfast is different now than it was, although still backwards in some ways. That in itself is sort of exciting when I feel like London is shrinking and pushing everyone not rich to the fringes. What’s the point of living in the biggest city in the world if you live on the edge of it? But there are still rarely visited streets in the centre which are maps of my early years here, where I remember.
Anyway, I was hoping I could write this all poetically and meaningfully and try to explain something profound or interesting, but instead it’s come out as a bit of a jumble. Bollocks.