towpath/ racism / not fitting in

050210-1023(001)Originally I started this blog as a sort of notepad to explore the Lagan towpath, a  path that ran very close to our last house. It is also the reason I ended up calling the blog ‘Canal ways’.

We had moved to Lambeg and it was a 40min walk on the towpath into Lisburn. I did the walk at some point most weeks and tried to look out for points of interest, stuff that might inspire me or noting things that came into my mind as I walked along. It was going to be a sort of art project or platform for other things, perhaps I would get a few more bird songs.

Now that I’ve moved away for a year I can say that I generally found it a dark and oppressive walk and as a consequence found it hard to find inspiration. The way the hawthorns hang over blocking out the sunlight, the green of everything and the stillness of the canal water which barely moved. The smell of the water treatment plant at Hilden on summer days, the derelict linen thread factories, the occasional rat running across your path. Even the moorhens and mallards seemed a bit menacing.

I’m not saying that the path was evil, but when I walked  along it felt to me like a heavy atmosphere hung over the place, like one of those haunted landscapes described by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it was just me projecting my depression and heavy heart on the area.

I  thought I had finished my thoughts about the towpath, but then I heard about an African man suffering a racist attack on  Saturday afternoon .
How can 3 lads just decide to attack someone out for walk? Why the violence?
Perhaps it is heightened by the fact that just before we moved an African gentleman moved into the house beside us. We chatted in the brief time we lived beside each other, he cooked me a lunch that he considered ‘mild’ yet nearly made me never want to eat food again – it was so hot! . He seemed out of place after 3 years of living in town that had very few Africans. That makes we wonder how he feels if he is still there. The last minister in our church (from Sierra Leone) describes in his book how he nearly died on Botanic Avenue:-

‘I never knew how black I was when I lived in Africa. Living with mostly black people around me, it was impossible to know this. Then one day in Belfast, surrounded with white people everywhere, I suddenly discovered that I was very black. Ireland in those days hard very few non-white people and still fewer black people. I still remember one day when I was nearly knocked over by a car as I tried to cross University Road to meet the first black person I had seen since I arrived in Belfast. This was in the university area. On getting to this man, I vigorously embraced him as I greeted him….I released him from my smothering embrace and explained that he was the first black person I hard met since I arrived in Belfast about six months earlier. I went on to tell him how lonely and alone I had been as a result’
Between Africa and the West, Sahr John Yambasu

My personal experience as white man in Lisburn and Belfast was that I was watched merely for looking scruffy and bearded. Every time I went into Eason’s the security man would follow me. H noticed it as well so I’m not making it up. I got tired of it.
I was walking up the Castlereagh Road once and someone eandomly yelled out of a moving van ‘Get your hair cut‘. Perhaps not a big deal but it annoyed me because it’s just typical of my experience growing up in Northern Ireland.
I can hear relatives saying the same thing, and it wasn’t a joke, they seemed to take a bushy beard or long hair as something that conveyed the wrong sort of behaviour. There was something not right about it, it was a sign that the big bad world of  sinfulness was knocking  the door,  it was a threat to norms which they considered as good norms, good Protestant British norms.

The first week I move to Lisburn I decided that I would get my hair cut and went into a barbers. She basically took the piss out of me in the same sneery way, as if a man with hair longer than 0.7mm is the village idiot. Basically looking a certain way in certain places is something that draws out inner scorn with very little effort.

So I’m imagining what it’s like to be an African around some parts of Belfast. If someone takes the time to yell at me out a van window whilst driving down the Castlereagh Rd just because my hair is long are they going to let someone from say Jamaica pass by without passing comment?

Of course racism is down here as well.

One morning on the way to church I watched a group of men standing outside the hotel beside our church. They watched one of our African ladies walking into the church building then one of them turned to his friends and did a stupid, sneery face. Something about this godly lady walking into a church building on a Sunday morning seemed worthy of a sneer. Was she somehow a threat to that group of grown men?

Then there are some of the election results across Europe and Italian fans turning up at training to hurl abuse at Mario Balotelli, or monkey chants from football supporters.

And of course racism or fear of the other is in my heart. I could give a list of people that I wouldn’t particularly want to live beside. Are all those people kicking up stick about Nigel Farage and his comments about not wanting to live beside say Romanians being honest about their tolerance levels? If  they are they are better people than me because there is fear or contempt for other ethnic groups lingering inside me, which doesn’t make it right of course, but that is the truth.

So I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than racism/sectarianism/ is a terrible thing and what are we, or more what am I going to do about it?

 

 

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seal

The walk home along the canal brought someone I haven’t seen for year or more, the seal. I rummaged around in my bag for the camera as I had to capture him (why  exactly did I have to capture him on camera?) and by the time I had it switched on I had lost him, just a few grainy out of focus shots and a video of the waves.

Walking home I was reminded of  a Wendell Berry poem I’d read last night.
It has been a tough week with things that have kept me a awake at night. News of family friend in hospital far from home and  family, fear and panic, far from peace.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry
seal

canal bank walk

Canal Bank Walk by Patrick Kavanagh

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

a bend in the river?

I walked home from Belfast through Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon park and along the Lagan coming to rest just before the M1 bridge. I read the 88th Psalm and tried to take stock of my life, or have a moment of calm.
The lamenting song writing project has hit the buffers a bit for different reasons. These range from doubts of the value of doing them to feeling lonely while writing  to hating my voice and the sound quality to being forced to deal with that strangest of feelings, joyfulness.
Because all among all the sadness, (and there is a lot of sadness out there from car bombs being left under cars to unexpected deaths to great ‘natural’ disasters) there are things that are just joyful. Take two of our best friends having a little baby girl, a little two day old girl clinging to her mummy. Or unexpected engagements from other friends and family members. It’s very hard not to be joyful….and yet there is so much sadness that clings around and haunts the place.

This is the longest build up to Easter I can remember both metaphorically and literally. I still need to lament and be in the desert but I also want to go home, to leave the exile of sitting feeding pigs in a shit hole. For a moment  the walk home along the Lagan didn’t feel so clautrophobic and the view widened out to something bigger.

M1 Tunnel

Walking home from Edenderry to Lisburn today along the towpath I reached the tunnel under the M1 and pulled my mob phone out to take a few pictures of the light at the end of the tunnel,then I switched over to video camera and recorded me emerging from the tunnel.
I’ve just uploaded it unto my laptop and if you use your imagination you can almost see a ghostly face appear at ~8sec to the left of the light…or can you?