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Billy King: Rites Again

 

 

 

Billy King

Issue 164:November 2008

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

Well, the last courgette of summer is departed and gone, we would often have a stockpile into November but it was such a slow growing season we only got enough to use as we were going along – a warm spell (or for that do you need a witch in a bikini?) [Or a wizard in swimming trunks? – Ed] and there are loads to give away. It’s a wintry wind blowing outside and it’s time to put on an extra layer or three again.

English evolution
As a native English speaker in Ireland, a majority English speaking country, I must say [why – Ed?] I’m rather fond of the language. In my lifetime, which is not over yet, there has been a continuing evolution to more informal patterns of expression while spelling, generally, retains its somewhat complex character. I’m not a language pedant [well, you can be a bit pedantic – Ed] but I take a certain interest. So when the English ‘Guardian’ newspaper gave away a short version of its style guide I was interested enough to read it. lower case is of course one of the features of modern English where Upper Case would have been used before. A number of entries in this guide consist of terms not to use – ones which are dated, inaccurate, pejorative or whatever; housewife, career girl, illegitimate (unacceptable for children born outside marriage, it says, except in a historical context). I was interested to learn that there is only one ‘Chatham House Rule’ (singular, not plural); “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” I previously adapted this to the “chat’em house rules” which I like to think works just as well, so I need to make this singular, “chat’em house rule”. There is language use which is correct, and language use which is incorrect, plus quite a swathe of grey where style comes in which may, in time, harden into firm and obligatory practice, or get pushed aside by something new.

But I must say [again? – Ed] that one of my biggest disagreements with “The Guardian Book of English Language” is a partly political one, or certainly pertaining to politics. It states that ‘Great Britain’ is “England, Wales and Scotland. If you want to include Northern Ireland, use Britain or the UK.” This is simply incorrect about ‘Britain’ and, I believe, not true of use in either Britain or Ireland. Unionists in Northern Ireland see themselves as British but do not proclaim, to my knowledge, to live in Britain; they live in the UK or United Kingdom. There was the odd disconsolate letter to the Norn Iron papers during the Olympics about ‘Team GB’ terminologically omitting the least populous unit within the UK – Northern Ireland (about 1.7 million people); no one writing on these lines wanted it called ‘Team Britain’. And obviously nationalists in Norn Iron do not for one instant imagine themselves living in ‘Britain’. For Northern Ireland to be part of Britain would require it, geographically, to be simultaneously part of Britain and part of Ireland. Even the term ‘British Isles’ is unacceptable to most Irish people, or certainly usage they would avoid…..the Guardian guide does not cover this. Under the entry for “Britain, UK” it says “Britain is the official short form of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Official? To whom? Confusing.

The Guardian’s guide was more nuanced on both ‘Ulster’ and ‘the province’; it advised avoiding the use of ‘Ulster’ if possible as Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of Ulster, but said its use is acceptable in headlines. It advised avoiding the use of ‘province’ for Northern Ireland, presumably for exactly the same reason.

It is one of the anomalies and inconsistencies of the reality in Ireland that there are British people living on an island which is not part of Britain. Politically, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whatever about certain people’s aspirations. There is no easy linguistic or indeed political way, to wrap this all up. My conclusion – on the use of ‘Britain’ to include the North, the ‘Guardian’ is just plain wrong.

Art and the Troubles
Went to the “A Shout in the Street: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art” exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, curated by Declan McGonigle. This consisted of almost thirty pieces, some linked, starting off with newspaper illustrations for the locations of the Bloody Friday bombs in Belfast and the route of the Bloody Sunday march in Derry. A large mural of Bobby Sands with some of his poetry (pen name Marcella, the name of a sister of his) was also at the start.

What worked best? I wasn’t too moved by a digitalised rendition of the numbers killed and the year (‘Countdown’ by Gareth Humphreys), with the names in small print, it was too fast for me, maybe it would work for others. A large scale billboard presentation of CAIN’s acronyms to do with the Troubles in the North did however make me think – wow, so many organisations for a conflict in such a small space, and thus about the depth and extent of the conflict and feeling about it. CAIN is the Conflict Archive on the INternet (www.cain.ulst.ac.uk) and well worth perusing if you haven’t been there.

A triptych or set of three videos, “Allegiances and assurances” by Sandra Johnston, showed in the first instance a church young men’s organisation doing marching drill in a church hall, then an Orange march and supporters (sometimes focussing on the activities of supporters), and finally, presumably, a fixed scene of the aftermath of an Orange bonfire as a dog and people come by. It may be my antimilitarism but I thought the linking of church support for marching linked well with the Orange Order marching – even if the people who did one might not necessarily do the other. How? Well, I reckon Christian support is a key underpinning for militarism in this part of the world, helping make it respectable – I would consider it (such Christian support) reprehensible as well as being fundamentally unChristian. That’s all my take on it and it may be a million miles, or at least kilometres, from that of the originator of the videos.

Presumably because it’s well covered elsewhere, not least on display in the streets, there was just one photo of a Muriel (mural) and that was of one which was almost all painted over, but a couple of bonfire sites and one ‘real’ palate and sofa bonfire put together by a couple of guys from Dee Street Community Centre in East Belfast. Unfortunately the size of the ceiling in the gallery put a ceiling on their efforts – there never was an Orange bonfire that small.

There were some pieces I didn’t ‘get’ in the context – like the ones of Belfast Zoo – normality or imprisonment? Likewise ‘Sputnik’. John Byrne had two video pieces, one a semi-mockumentary on the ‘Border Interpretative Centre’ (2000) at whose ‘opening’ at a shed there was Kevin McAleer proclaiming “Our border is the best…..It unites the whole country” in his famous deadpan manner. The mock serious plaque put up proclaimed it was ‘Twinned with the Korean Border”.

John Byrne’s other piece (“Would you Die for Ireland?”, 2007) was a vox pop exercise in various places (mainly Dublin) asking people if they would die for Ireland. A more relevant question might be – Would you kill for Ireland? – and unfortunately the two are usually linked, even if this should not necessarily be the case. People tended to assume that ‘dying for Ireland’ meant in a military context. But this threw up all sorts of interesting reactions; realistic, gung ho, naïve, mystified, reflective, jokey, embarrassed and so on. The interviews were also mainly of men, if there had been more women there might have been less ‘yes’ answers, though some men indicated they weren’t brave enough or asked directly what there was to die for, while numbers more simply said ‘No’.

A man and a woman both proclaimed they already were ‘dying’ for Ireland, presumably a sarcastic and almost surrealistic response to both their own personal circumstances (not that they were actually dying though the woman put it in the past tense, “I have done”) and that of the country. Bertie was included and after talking about the past (implicitly 1916 and War of Independence) said that the challenge was to achieve what they had started (I think he said started, I’m not sure) by peaceful means, i.e. unification of the country. A couple of Orangemen had another take however, and they were not about to die for Ireland; an older man spoke of the rearguard action in Ireland and the historical context, backs to the wall and all that, while another emphasised his Britishness. Some people from outside Ireland also proclaimed their willingness to ‘die for Ireland’.

Deconstructing all of this exhibition might take a PhD thesis but it was an interesting selection of pieces primarily on what is now receding into history even if the divisions live on.

Rocky Robinson
Call me perverse, perverted, pernickety, pernicious or predestined, I have to say I enjoy it. The ‘it’ is leafing through the party political brochures and newssheets that come my way, which most people would consign to the rubbish or recycling bin without a second glance. Why? Not just because they tend to be dealing with local and other issues considered of importance, more so because they reveal what a particular party wants us to think about them (and what issues they think about). I have referred before to the Sinn Féin councillor in Dublin drawing attention to his work to get a religious grotto or statue repainted.

Anyway there are no grottoes to the Virgin Mary mentioned in what I’ve been looking at, I have in my hand the “East Belfast Voice – Westminster Report’ (Issue 1) on behalf of Rt Hon Peter Robinson MP MLA - the ‘FM’ in OFMDFM. The first interesting point is the front page headline: “Peter accepts the roles of First Minister and Leader of the DUP”; he ‘accepts’ which makes it look like it was only out of the goodness and graciousness of his heart that he deigned to take the job(s), that this was thrust upon him. The second point is the personal ‘Peter’ in many places throughout (it appears in 6 headlines in an 8-page newssheet, apart from places in the text); we’re to think of him as a friend, definitely someone we’re on good first name terms with, our bosom pal and generally all round great guy who is ceaselessly working on our behalf. I don’t doubt he’s a hard worker but the false familiarity I find a bit hard to take.

Under “A Royal visit to the Skainos Project” (a huge new church/community/ statutory enterprise on the Newtownards Road of Belfast which will open in 2010) there is a difference between the import of text and photograph; the text indicates Peter Robinson MP was delighted to welcome HRH QEII and HRH D of E (these words were spelt out but I prefer to abbreviate them, this is a family newssheet) to East Belfast, whereas the photo shows him as just one of a line of local dignitaries lined up to receive the pressing of the royal flesh. Thus what was written was true but the photo gives a different impression – maybe he did welcome them more personally elsewhere, I don’t know. On the international scene we learnt that “Peter recently travelled to Southern Afghanistan with Jeffrey Donaldson and the Royal Air Force…to visit Northern Ireland Troops….”; I suppose it might be more appropriate to say that he was accompanied by Jeffrey Donaldson and flew with the RAF, because I doubt it was the other way around. I also suppose, given his political predisposition, it’s not surprising that he should give his blessing to the costly and ineffective war in Afghanistan.

Tours of Stormont and Westminster are also offered in the newssheet. Stormont is certainly impressive, a large classical building on a hill with a drive nearly a mile long. However I cannot help but think of our Sri Lankan peace movement visitor who, being shown Stormont by friends he made travelling to Belfast, declined to get out and look around; “Oh no, thank you very much, we have buildings like this in Sri Lanka as well.” – i.e. British colonial style piles. There are other stories I could refer to in this newssheet from ‘Peter’ but I’ll finish with reference to three photos of Peter R with George Bush – I don’t know but if I’d met George Bush I think I’d be hushing it up rather than proclaiming it through people’s letterboxes. It’s all a matter of political taste, and maybe for Peter, that’s kudos, and, perhaps, votes.

Fight wars not war
You know the slogan, Fight War Not Wars (i.e. don’t fight in wars, fight the concept and reality of war), well, a graffiti writer in south Belfast got it slightly wrong by saying Fight Wars Not War, which might indicate they wanted more wars and leave the concept of war alone. But it’s slightly difficult in meaning anyway and they knew what they were trying to say. What was rather more worrying was that on the same wall in felt tip somebody had written “Fritzl is GOD” (in interesting calligraphy), referring to lifetime rapist and family-jailor Josef Fritzl. People say all sorts of things are ‘god’ (‘Bono you are god’ appeared in Spanish on the side of Bono’s property at Killiney) but “Fritzl is GOD” is a grim and grotesque thing to say, more or less however you deconstruct it; the most benign interpretation I can make is if it was a militant atheist or God-hater actually stating “GOD is Fritzl” with regard to perceived manipulation of people by ‘God’. Either that or someone just trying to get up people’s noses. Answers on a postcard, please.

Going back to war, what people take pleasure in or are attracted by never ceases to amaze me. There is still a poster up in Belfast city centre, right beside where I frequently park my bike, for an event in June this year at Hillsborough Fort entitled “Military Mayhem - a thousand years of warfare.” And this was intended to attract people! I would consider it nearly as sick as the Fritzl graffiti. Sorry folks, do we need to point out we’re talking about people being killed here, countless suffering, and families left bereft. I know ‘mayhem’ in its modern sense is intended to indicate good craic but the term ‘military mayhem’ has a much deeper and more violent meaning; there is a legal term ‘mayhem’ but it more usually means a state of rowdy disorder, where there is no control or self-control. Thus deconstructed, ‘military mayhem’ would actually imply considerable violence and death.

The Headitor was saying the ‘Fight Wars Not War’ slogan reminded him of the time at a big pre-Iraq war demo he was dressed up as an undertaker, top hat and all, with the slogan on the front “More wars please”, and on the back “Bash and Bluir, Undertakers”. Subsequently, outside the Gas Works in Belfast when he was advising Her Britannic Majesty (present to open a call centre), “Tell Tony no war”, he was seen by a policeman who recognised him from the big anti-Iraq war demo. “You’ve changed your tune then!” said the policeman, with no hint of irony – he really thought someone dressed as an undertaker at an anti-war demo with a placard saying “More wars please” wanted just that…. It sounds a bit ironic given that he didn’t get the irony the first time.

Mayo Peace Park
I am all for remembering those who have died in military service if it done in a suitable context. The Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar remembers the 1,000 or so men and women from the county killed in the wars of the last century, and was opened by Mary McAleese on 7th October. I haven’t visited the Peace Park so I am hesitant to comment after just seeing press coverage and looking at the website at http://www.mayomemorialpeacepark.org/ However I do have some comments about such a project as it has been developed. Obviously most Irish contributions to UN military peacekeeping since the 1960s cannot be faulted in context, and many who died in the Second World War did see themselves fighting Nazism and fascism, but I’m not quite sure how anyone can say the First World War was fought in the cause of world peace as opposed to being a war between conflicting imperialisms (and WWI led directly to WWII). The same applies to those three men who died, presumably in US service, in the Vietnam War. Of course many nationalists who joined the British forces in the First World War saw themselves fighting for ‘Ireland’ but that does not make it any less an imperialist war. The website says that the originator of the idea of the Peace Park, Michael Feeney, proposed “to commemorate all those from the County, who served and died in wars in the cause of world peace.”

It is right to remember those who have given their lives for a cause, and acknowledging everybody who died is progressive in the Irish context (not just those who died for the British or for Irish independence) but what makes Mayo Peace Park a ‘Peace Park’ and not a ‘War Memorial’ park? Its format seems to be a variation on the usual war memorials. And the quote, prominently displayed on the website, from ‘For the Fallen’ by Lawrence Binyon – “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them” – may be a common British quote regarding war dead, much used at Remembrance Sunday services, but it includes maudlin sentimentality. They didn’t want to die and their loved ones didn’t want them to die, and ‘age shall not weary them’ because they already died. Each and every one of these deaths was a tragedy, they are all victims, but to say they all died ‘for peace’ is untrue however you analyse it, and however much their loved ones may remember them and admire them.

It may seem churlish and insensitive of me to make these points but it is important when the term ‘peace’ is used so loosely. I have many ancestors, from my parents’ generation backwards, who fought for the British is whatever wars were happening at the time, and many saw themselves as making a contribution to world peace. But context is everything. I see nothing about the Mayo Peace Park website which contributes towards real learning about peace and war (this includes the links given which are very limited). If it is to be a peace park, and not a war memorial park, I would like to see a more critical approach, and a contribution towards learning about and from the wars, what they entailed, and what the different sides fought for, and what was achieved or not achieved by their efforts – and sacrifice of lives. Plus its needs a major input on other options for solving conflict instead of war and for building real peace so wars do not happen, and a list of organisations at home or abroad who are on this track. Then, and only then, is it likely to contribute to peace in the future.

- - - - -

Well, November is upon us, time soon for a million Santas to either reappear or be wondering what is happening. Before I go, I am not going to sing that oul song, the Old Bog Road, but I will talk to you about the Old Bog Roll. I previously reported that Inversoft toilet paper was almost all recycled, they have now launched their 100% recycled version, Eco-Kind, though it does look like it may also have been the opportunity for a price hike. Anyway, there’s now 100% made-in-Ireland recycled toilet paper readily available. Maybe it’s even the ‘Rolls’ Royce of toilet papers, I can’t say that but I certainly think it’s not a bum deal. [Have we now started end-orsement of products? I hope not – Ed] On that point I think it’s time to call it a day, when I see you next you’ll be crying for mercy from the pressures of Christmas consumerism and end of year deadlines. Fare thee well, Billy.

Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

Copyright INNATE 2014