Next year Derry-London Derry will become the first UK Capital of Culture. Inspired by Liverpool’s tenure as the European holder of the title, the Northern Ireland city with celebrate a year of local culture, as well as holding some of the UKs most prestigious cultural events and awards.
It’s easy to be cynical when cities seemingly arbitrarily get awarded these honours. It’s like when a town announces that it’s twinned with some village in South America and you wonder if that means the mayors have to become pen pals. When it’s a place in Northern Ireland it’s even easier to roll one’s eyes, like it’s a patronising clap on the back to reward a place for not blowing each other up anymore.
Growing up in the south, north of the border was a confusing place to me. Peace grants, peace trains, reconciliation patch work quilts, full of well meaning middle class women, talking earnestly about nurturing cross community cultural understanding through dialogue and knitting. It was all part of the weirdness that was Northern Ireland. It was like the girl at school that sometimes didn’t do her homework but the teachers let off for mysterious reasons that were never quite explained.
Every night the news was a roll call of grey middle aged men, face and voice contorted with hatred, or paralyzed with rock hard certainty shrilly promising to never forget or never surrender. Occasionally, there would be a documentary about some old atrocity, footage from the 70s would appear in autumnal colours with young men and women looking like they’d wandered out of my parent’s childhood photo album. Happy young faces beaming from hand knitted jumpers and dodgy haircuts doomed to disappear, shot dead, blown up; frozen in eternal youth by events too heart breakingly sad and unfair to wrap your head around. Facts, numbers and history, beating down any chance of hope or change.
Nowhere is that more evident in the city of Derry/London Derry, where even its schizophrenic name reveals centuries of division. One city but two different names claimed by two warring communities, each with their own myths, legends and version of events. Free Derry, home of nationalism, witness to the battle of the Bogside, the town I loved so well and London Derry, Birthplace of Loyalism, it’s walls the witness to The Siege of Derry, it was old and it was beautiful and it all began there.
When I arrived in London first, I lived with a girl from an Ulster unionist background. I adored her, chic, glamorous; she was everything I imagined city life to be. Weeks after I’d moved in, I casually referred to somebody being from Derry. “It’s called London Derry” she snapped. For an ice cold moment, she stopped being the new friend who worked in fashion and became that boogieman from the news. We were two young women in London, yet history had still found us.
History has a habit of popping back when you least want it. Only last week, when a prison guard was shot dead by a paramilitary group, it was a very old hatred reminding us that it wasn’t all over just yet. The families that wept with relief when the Bloody Sunday findings were released, weren’t mourning anonymous names on walls, they were remembering their brother and sisters. Loss has a cruel way of popping back as fresh as a lost loved ones smell.
It makes sense that a city that has witnessed so much horror and injustice should also produce some of the greatest art from that period; to make sense, offer consolation, to pay witness to the dogged determination to survive.
It’s in the urgency of The Undertones guitar riffs, the compassion of Brian Friel’s plays, the beauty of Seamus Heaney poems. The advantage Art has over facts is that it tells you what it was really like, how it actually felt, what things are really all about. You may disagree with someone political beliefs but when faced with your shared humanity, it’s much harder to hate someone and dismiss their opinions as not worth listening to. Facts can tell us what happened, but art tells us why and how it felt. It gives a community space to tell their truth, away from the reports, the spin and the prejudice.
The shooting of thirteen unarmed civilians by the British army in Derry in 1972 is seen by many as the start of The Troubles. It’s fitting then that two years after an enquiry that finally revealed the truth about that awful day, that this city is given the chance to begin the next chapter in Northern Irish history. It’s also fitting that it’s their local boy who offers, in a poem, the one prayer both sides can believe in, that at long last “The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme” and finally offer a place with two names, the one future it deserves.