Another solo Christmas 

11 Dec
Merry Fucking Christmas. Billy Bob Thornton down on his luck in Bad Santa (2003)

Merry Fucking Christmas.
Billy Bob Thornton down on his luck in Bad Santa (2003)

I’m used to it, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t had a happy couple-y Christmas season since 2008. Two further ones spent during a relationship were difficult to say the least. But most of the last decade I’ve found myself sitting down with various groupings of my family, finding myself increasingly awkward and retreating into myself as the season and big day itself goes on.

Christmas for me, as it is for many others, is tough. There’s always a risk of depression hitting (I see from my notes I took a massive downer last year), and coupled with my solo status the moods can get very bleak. As everyone else in my vicinity is coupled up, and/or with families of their own, I feel very much like an outsider.

Platitudes around all the things I should be happy about, how you never know what’s around the corner, and how they’re all there for you, really doesn’t help. I tell you I’m happy alone, but I’d love to be waking up in the arms of another on Christmas morning, indulging in festivities, and draining the port after dinner and watching Doctor Who while snuggled into a lover’s bosom. Each of you that has this has no grounds to attempt to console me or those like me with words because you have what we don’t, and what we crave.

I’m set against the idea of winter affairs because they play out against the high pressures of Christmas and Valentine’s Day, skewing our expectations dangerously. But, ye gods, it’s fucking lonely out here. Everyone engrossed in capitalist overkill, making wild love declarations, and playing at fucking happy families. It doesn’t matter that it might all be bullshit, you get to pretend. And I bet for at least some of that time, being with someone else really makes your holiday.

It’s doubly hard after glimpsing the inside of a relationship again. My suspicions that it wouldn’t last til Christmas were well-founded as it turns out. But my bought of genuine heartbreak in its wake has left me vulnerable, untrusting and more alone than ever. And it means this year I’m even more likely to retreat away from everyone else.

Don’t confuse this with depression though. It’s hard seeing other people happy, or pretending to be, when you’re not where you want to be. I’d much prefer to be sitting in a field with my dog Bowie as company than sit at my folks’ with the siblings. Not because I don’t love them, but because it just reminds me of me. Makes me self-aware. If the right person offered, I’d disappear like a shot.

I’m not doing presents this year. Please don’t give me any. And I wont give you one in return. It isn’t needed. I need less stuff, not more. Give to someone else, give to charity, give to yourself.

Being rejected because of who I am – because of the way I am – has killed a lot of ego, the same ego I had just begun to accept (and once you’ve been properly replaced you know the problem was you and not them at all). I know I’m a lovely person, would make a great partner, but I don’t think anyone is prepared to put the little work in it actually needs to sustain an ‘us’. I’m a bit top heavy – there’s more work at the start as my barriers break down. But I’m not a bullshitter, I don’t lie, and I’m not going to impose my rules and ideology on anyone else because that isn’t healthy. Communication, trust and picking your battles are paramount. Why is that so hard to accept?

There’s what, two weeks to go before Christmas. I’m unlikely to have this turned around before then. No new relationship. No hook-up. Not even a date. And so the frustration of the fantasy continues. And don’t even get me started on New Year…

Who am I? (Part 1)

3 Dec

During the annual summer tensions in NI this year a relative asked me why I was so “against [my] own people.” That is, why so critical of the protestant/unionist population that I ostensibly hail from? The answer at its most basic is simply because I don’t feel that the so-called representatives and leaders of unionist, loyalist or protestant people actually do speak for me and my views. The more comprehensive response is probably based in a tortured sense of identity.

A statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Symbol of protestant resistance in Northern Ireland – a statue of William III in Carrickfergus. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The exposure to ideology I had growing up was almost exclusively protestant/unionist. The rhetoric of ‘Ulster says No’ and ‘1, 2, 3, DUP’. Orange bands on 12th July. My father worked for Bill Henderson, the owner of the Belfast Newsletter and former Ulster Unionist politician. My grandfather’s shop in Derry had been firebombed by the IRA and left a lasting impression on the family. This was the world I knew.

But I was also removed from much of what went on. We lived at the foot of the Craigantlet hills during my formative years in a fairly isolated house. Trips into town weren’t overly frequent, and I only recall a couple of instances of evacuation owing to bomb scares. My bit of East Belfast wasn’t known for its tension.

Once the quiet lane behind our house was on the news as someone was shot in his car. I remember the police coming to the door asking questions, telling him we’d heard nothing then telling mum we’d heard all sorts of things. I’ve no idea if we actually heard the shooting or not.

By the 1990s we had moved into the Garnerville housing estate right beside the RUC training barracks. A mighty wall of green corrugated iron with cameras all round faced our living room. The sound of their band woke us many a Saturday morning. I took it all for granted that this was how things were.

Somebody else was shot in the alleys behind the new house. An internal loyalist affair.

I accepted security checks in shops – the queues outside Debenhams as bags were searched. I didn’t think twice about the presence of soldiers on the streets, or the fact that the police carried guns. They scared me, but I wasn’t a law breaker so I didn’t worry excessively.

At some point in my teenage years my attitude shifted. I questioned the assumed unionism I had been brought up in. I watched nightly news reports of tit-for-tat attacks between Catholics and Protestants and knew none of us were safe. If I was stopped in the street by thugs I was screwed either way. I couldn’t sing any tribal anthems. I felt unsafe watching the bonfires. I didn’t like the hatred of Catholics expressed by many.

My Christian development changed how I thought. I became wary as I devoured Jack Chick publications and attended a Brethren church. Both fountains of intolerance and hate. But I also had a Methodist minister at school. My BB and youth club was at a large pentecostal church. Our Scripture Union group at school was a real mix of backgrounds.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I began working with a peace group – the Horizon Project. A cross-boarder, cross-community group aimed at bringing different young people together. I made friends for life here. I saw an alternative future. We were basically all the same. No thoughts of violence. Plenty of hormones.

I read Augustine. I refused to join the school’s Combined Cadet Force (CCF), a way of preparing school boys for the British military. Instead I ended up head of our Social Services unit, working with disabled kids, elderly folk and the like. I outed myself as a pacifist, a conscientious objector.

I am working class protestant by birth. As a child of the 80s we had the upper hand. The population majority. The majority representation in government. Historically unionism had maintained control through gerrymandering. Internment had targeted republicans almost exclusively, ignoring crimes committed by loyalists. While I couldn’t fault the police chasing bombers and gunmen I still cannot condone the prejudiced persecution of the wider republican community and the comparative lack of pursuit of the loyalist bombers and gunmen.

I am a Northern Irishman. I hold a British passport but I am not British. I am happy to be called Irish because that’s more like what I feel. But given the option (and this should be widely recognised officially) I am Northern Irish. This country is heavily influenced by cultures of Ireland and Britain. Since before partition NI has felt different from either parent nation- but with overlaps. Ideology means many here refuse to accept the impact that that heritage has had on shaping them, how much they carry, to the point where they shout you down when you speak up for that inheritance.

I’m a modern day mudblood. In my veins courses Irish catholic heritage, and Ulster-Scot protestant heritage. I’ve recently taken a DNA test as part of my genealogy research, and I’ll be interested to see what the science says about my family’s make-up. Most of my Scottish line I’ve traced back to Ireland. My grandfather used to joke (at my grandmother’s expense) about her having Spanish forefathers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the results lean very heavily towards an Irish ancestry, with perhaps a little Scottish. I’ll share the results in the new year when they come back. Maybe they’ll suggest something else, but right now I feel it would be disingenuous to disown my Irishness.

We are products of the society we are born into. We don’t make a choice in that – nature does that for us. Most of us inherit the politics and religion of our parents. Some of us will move away from that faith, mostly into atheism, but few will shake their politics. As a nation we need to learn to move past this original sin mentality that keeps us fighting each other, dividing us up into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We cannot keep brow-beating this generation for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. We cannot treat every republican or unionist as if they are militant with a grudge to spend. We cannot repeat the errors of the past.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Twelfth bonfire, Newtownards. Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I acknowledge the injustices perpetrated by my perceived community in the past. I understand the feeling of disenfranchisement by the perceived other community. I understand why people on both sides got caught up in militant struggles, defence and retaliation. I understand we are not a healed society. But we cannot continue like that. I’ve heard such anger and bitterness from both protestants and catholics this last year – the fears of the other haven’t gone away, with both firmly believing themselves to be right and the others bitter and vengeful. Its scary to listen to. If only they could hear themselves.

I listen to lines about how the Twelfth celebrations are an example of pageantry and aren’t sectarian. Then I see the bonfires becoming adorned with flags, election posters and other weighted symbols and they become totems of hate once again and I cannot be a part of that. Tribalism and sectarianism only cement division and mistrust. They weaken us. They allow us to be manipulated by those in power. For a Christian order, Orangeism stands out against Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matthew ch5 v44).

I believe in dialogue. Listening. Trying to understand. When someone tells me I’m wrong I’ll listen to their argument, I’ll try and research the areas I’m faulty in. And either I’ll reaffirm my position or it will change. Being able to stand up and say, ‘Yup, I was wrong’ is important. I want to understand, to move forward. I’ll listen to any politics, any religious exchange, and I’ll stand and ask questions of myself and others. Testing one’s faith, one’s understanding, is important. I have broken my own rules, my own prejudices repeatedly, and been happier for it. I’m not betraying my ‘people’ because tribalism is something imposed on us by societies and the xenophobic. I’m being true to myself.

Belfast City Cemetery – Shared History. An interview with Tom Hartley (2014)

29 Nov

September 2013. I’ve recently been exploring Belfast City Cemetery for the first time in search of family graves. Even though we have quite a few relatives perpetually resting here, my protestant relatives aren’t keen on visiting – perceiving it to be in something of a no-go area, located as it is in the heart of nationalist West Belfast. I’m somewhat taken back by the run-down state of huge sections – the evidence of repeated vandalism, poor signage, and difficulty in navigating. I write to Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein politician who has researched the history of the graveyard, published an excellent book on the subject and regularly gives tours. I receive a reply from his office that emphasises the ongoing work to improve the cosmetics of the cemetery.

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

February 2014. I’ve been researching a radio feature on the history of the cemetery, hoping to focus on the potential for it as a location of shared history between the Protestant and Catholic communities. I reach out to several local politicians for an interview and only Tom replies in the time I have available with any sense of engagement. Ultimately the feature was abandoned because I wanted a more rounded set of voices. I’m disappointed in particular in the Protestant leaders (I’d contacted the former DUP Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, but he declined to take part) -as its their community history that I think we can build a story out of.

I’ve been back researching the cemetery in person several times since then, with more work to do.  Belatedly, I present here a slightly edited transcription of the discussion between me and Hartley, without additional comment. A loose discussion between two men, ostensibly from opposite sides of the community divide in NI, but with a shared interest in the history of the cemetery space and the city we were both born and bred in.

We meet 10.45 am, Wednesday 12 February 2014, a short walk from the City Cemetery, in the Culturlann on the Falls Road – my first time at this location. I enter the cafe area, find Tom, order a coffee and as I sit, hit record on my Sony minidisc. We join the conversation after the opening salvos…

TOM HARTLEY: …Its about knowing your own city.

ROBERT SIMPSON: One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years, is actually go to places that when I was growing up I wouldn’t have been to. Places that either were forbidden, because of the Troubles and things, I was too young to travel around, or just kind of peaked my curiosity.

I took a trip into the Bogside last year – first time I’ve done that –

TH: Did you survive it okay?

RS: I survived [laughter]. But I mean, having been in Derry forever, my grandparents live there, it was somewhere I’d never been properly.

TH: What school did you go to in Belfast?

RS: Campbell College.

TH: Campbell College… so that’s the C.S. Lewis connection?

RS: That’s the one, yeah. Very tenuous C.S. Lewis connection…

TH: But nevertheless still there.

RS: I actually grew up round the corner from where he did, so its all very familiar territory. I feel quite bad I’ve not been up [to the cemetery] before.

TH: Well for instance, across the road is Dominican College. One of the great artworks of Belfast is in the college and that is a stained glass window by a man called Harry Clark. Now if you know anything about stained glass windows Harry Clark is one of the pre-eminent stain glass window artists in this country; he’s dead, he died in the 1930s but his windows are very famous, you know…. There’s another stained glass window in Townsend Presbyterian church by a woman called Wilhelmina Geddes… So its all sorts of material that you find here in this part of the city, which we as a city should be celebrating.

RS: I have to say I agree, and that’s actually where I come into this, this project, this piece I’m doing about the City Cemetery… I’d read some of your comments from a couple of years ago about the City Cemetery and the lack of… the protestants that weren’t coming in and you seemed to be making some effort at the time to try and address that and that was quite interesting for me because coming from where I come from and my family – we have family buried in City Cemetery. My grandfather hasn’t been up to see his parents’ grave in years…

TH: Why not?

RS: I think for him it was an emotional problem. His problem was that he put – in his specific example, he’d put a wooden cross on the grave a few times and it had been removed and vandalised repeatedly, and I think he found that…

TH: Distressing?

RS: Yeah, after a while.

TH: Yes

RS: So that’s his personal thing, obviously that may be different for somebody else – may have other reasons, but I’m aware there has been a lot of vandalism…

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

TH: …Well, there has been, but it’s like I suppose any open space in this city, but we have worked hard as a community to reduce it. I’m not so sure that, given that it’s a big open space that you’ll ever, totally… eradicate it. .
But I think you can raise community awareness about the site, how valuable it is and what it means to us as a city. And if you get communities then around the cemetery, I think we’ve already achieved this, taking ownership of the cemetery and beginning to see it as a very important site in the narrative of Belfast then that begins to change the way people view the cemetery.
But also, you know, I have a view that in the 1970s and 80s and really the 1990s, Belfast City Council gave up on the cemetery. So you had a lot of vandalism, theft. Also it was overgrown you know, and where a spot is overgrown it encourages drinkers and vandals so all that has been cut back and while we haven’t reached the position I think where you could rest… With the work that has been done or achieved, it is still a much different space today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

RS: I think I was even reading stuff online from forums from 5 or 6 years ago and there are people talking about the state of the cemeteries then, so obviously there’s a lot of work that’s been done. I’ve been up to both the City Cemetery and Milltown, and my first impressions – I actually wrote to you about this last year – my first impressions of Milltown were considerably better than City Cemetery. It is more obviously neglected… but then, that’s coming from someone who hasn’t had the benefit of being up here for 20 years and seeing the changes.

TH: When I went into it first you could hardly see the inner sections… overgrown… And now, you begin to see even when you walk along the frontage of the Falls Road you begin to see the layout. There’s been a lot of undergrowth, trees , naturally seeded by the birds. Then given the weather and the global warming – you cut one year and the next year its just as bad. Now I think the Council needs to then be on top of that situation. I suppose in an older type of cemetery it’s a bit difficult because of the stone surrounds. Whereas if you look at the new lawn type sections at the top of the cemetery, where you don’t have surrounds, where headstones are by and large of similar height, then what you begin to get is a section that is easy to maintain, whereas some of the older sections are difficult in that sense to maintain. But I think that’s up to Belfast City Council to find ways of looking after the cemetery.

RS: Your own book [Belfast City Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press] that you published on it is, I thought it was a great read, very informative and its, it is actually very well balanced for someone who, I guess for someone who has been a politician and has a particular allegiance – your representation of the story of Belfast City Cemetery is the story of the people, and I wouldn’t say is in any way a biased one. Which is what a good historian should be…

TH: Well… I of course see it as the history of my city; and its like you could have a different political view than I have, and that’s democracy but it doesn’t make you – really it doesn’t make you essentially the enemy. You’re not someone to be avoided. And your history and where you come from – is probably a part of my history – the history of my city. I just see in that in this city politically there are dimensions of who we are. And that enhances our sense of us, it doesn’t diminish. So its not something that I think, ‘I’m going in here to write as a republican’, I’m just writing as someone who loves this city, its people and its history, and its difficult at times and there are really difficult… situations that you deal with. For instance I don’t believe – and this is I suppose the public person in me – I don’t believe that we should be hurting each other over our dead, and I think we do that. And whether its desecration of a grave, of a war grave or a republican plot; or what we say – the way we talk about the dead, I think we have this great capacity in our society to hurt each other over our dead, whereas I have a view that the dead do represent multiple dimensions of us as a city and we should use that history, that complexity, and that often difficult history as a way of enhancing our sense of us, not diminishing us.

RS: I think that’s something that you and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir [Lord Mayor of Belfast at time of interview] actually have gone to great pains to do – to make it a more inclusive thing. It seems to me as well that you are at times bashing your head against a brick wall with the reaction that you get from some parts of the certainly the loyalist and unionist community.

TH: Well, I mean, oddly enough now, in their defence, I have done walks through the cemetery with loyalists, and I have to say, I always found them very open to history. And I have brought them in, a difficult walk for me, through Milltown Cemetery. But they were there, they came. So, in some sense I think that when you look at elements say of the loyalist protest… and then that very quickly becomes a monolithic view of a whole community. And the one thing I learned in politics, or the one thing politics taught me, was don’t ever look at anything in a monolithic way because then you stop seeing opportunities and you stop seeing; you stop seeing the human element and how you can make contact, and how you can engage and how… You can talk about our history and you can differ about it, but that doesn’t mean you end up sticking out your tongue at someone you know and huffin’. And sometimes I think we do a form of that in society – you’re the baddy and I’m the goody. But life is much more grey than that. And history teaches me that. And in their defence now, I have walked through Milltown Cemetery with loyalists, and they would disagree with the politics of those who lie there, but what was important was that they were in Milltown, they were looking at that history, they were engaging with it in the walk and I think that’s very important.

RS: Is that something you struggle to do, to – not necessarily personally, but is it an uphill struggle to encourage those from the loyalist backgrounds to come into this neck of the woods again.

TH: No, I’ve had many loyalists in the City Cemetery, I’ve led numerous groups from the protestant/unionist community and no, they come in. Now, a lot of those walks would be into the City Cemetery… but nevertheless the complexity of our life, our history, is to be found in City Cemetery as much as it is found in Milltown Cemetery.
I have a great sense of people being open to the history of this place. And they don’t have to agree with me; and as I say, you can agree or disagree, you can like or not like the politics of the people who are buried in Milltown and City Cemetery, but what you can’t disagree with is that it’s the history of our city, and therefore because it’s the history of our city, it belongs to us. All of us.

RS: I would agree with that. You wouldn’t say there are still no go areas in Belfast for one community or the other, or are there?

TH: Well, I think there are tensions in areas, and you can see it, we have to…. You can see… the situation in the Lower Newtownards Road the other week… But… There’s a burial ground over in the Lower Newtownards Road beside the Methodist Meeting House… I would campaign as much for that history and that story to be told as I would for a story on the Falls Road to be told. And I suppose given my face, and the atmosphere that you find in parts of the city, you do need to take that into account. But I have spoken in all areas of Belfast on the City Cemetery, and I’ve always got a great reception – always. People are always interested in hearing about the history of the place. Now that doesn’t mean they agree with me, but they come and they listen.

RS: What was it that prompted you to start researching the Cemetery?

TH: Oh that’s a long story.

RS: You grew up around here?

TH: About five minutes from here. Think I was born here, so that’s where it all began. Where does it all begin? I’ve been trying to unravel that…. I suppose way back in the 1970s I was involved with the Republican Press Centre and we used to get journalists from Britain coming across to us and at that time we had 13 or 14 big British military forts round West Belfast – something like out of the Wild West. And they used to ask us to take them and show them, and in between showing them the forts I would point out this street and that street and this… And that then eventually became the tour, became a tour for me when the West Belfast Festival started in 1987. So it was ready made because I just, through the years had brought all sorts of people round to show them the place. So when ’87 came along I organised a bus tour, and then I ended up in the City Cemetery and started to become very interested in that so. I gave up the bus tour and started to do a walking tour of both the City and Milltown, and that lasted for about 6 hours. And I used to have a badge “I survived Tom Hartley’s tour.”
But then it just got too much, cus it was 6 hours. I mean I could do it, but I could see when I started off in the City and wind my way eventually into Milltown and then I could see at the end of it people gasping for breath. Mind you, they stayed with me and they loved it. But it was a bit too much so I broke it up, so we have a separate tour, we have a tour of Milltown and we have a separate tour of City which I do. And so its been a long story.

RS: I’m right in my understanding of the geography of Belfast and the history of the cemetery in that it was initially basically a Protestant burial ground, with a few Catholic burials after the dispute?

TH: Well it was meant to be an interdenominational. Then the dispute arose, between the Bishop Patrick Dorrien, catholic bishop Patrick Dorrien, and the Belfast Corporation, of course the Belfast City Council. And the dispute was over who had ultimate burial rights for those to be buried in catholic-blessed ground. And so a stillborn child would not be buried in catholic-blessed ground, nor would a suicide, or someone that had been excommunicated.
The last category, and I was telling a group this story one day, and I said, the last category was a Catholic who had bought a grave as a Catholic but then became a Protestant, and a voice at the back of the group went “God Forbid!” [laughter].

So eventually we ended up with two cemeteries you know, Milltown and the City. But the story for me it is the one narrative and indeed I’ll be launching a book at the festival on the 31st July on Milltown Cemetery to tell that element of our history. [Milltown Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press]

RS: My understanding of the geography is that now the City Cemetery is surrounded by nationalist areas on all sides.

TH: Yes, yes, aye. Well, I mean, when it opened first of all it was outside the City boundaries, and they had to have what is called a Local Parliamentary Act to give the Local Corporation the right to get the land. You see when I was growing up on the Falls Road, this was [the Culturlann] of course a Presbyterian Church and I remember the Orangemen coming in here, marching in here on 12th July. They would march up Broadway, down to Beechmount Avenue, and then up the road and into here – this building. And so this, there was a Methodist Church, Presbyterian churches and on this road, a Church of Ireland and so there were, I would say right up until the 1950s – the streets here, Thames’s Street – there would have been Protestants living in these areas. But after 1970, for example the congregation of this church probably moved on given the crises. So, you know the Fellons Club on the Falls Road – it’s a club for to be a member you have to be an ex-prisoner. But it started off as a Methodist Hall. Life is much more complex and layered than we pretend.

RS: Does that strike you at all as curious I guess, that there is this little space full of dead protestants in the middle of…

TH: No, not at all. Why would it? Its I mean…. If you start looking at it that way… ok… I suppose there were… The reality of course is when you get to know for instance sometimes there’s as many tensions between Presbyterians and Methodists and Church of Ireland as there is between Catholics and Protestants.

RS: Agreed.

TH: Its just happened that way. Does that make, in a sense I just see that as, I’m glad they’re there cus… I’m able to tell that story. And I’m able to tell it for people who may not appreciate the depth of it.

RS: I don’t mean that to sound sort of political. For me its curious that for a society that’s still so bogged down on these divisions, when you get to the City Cemetery its actually quite inclusive.

TH: Well, you know, everyone’s equal in death. So… in some senses it offers an opportunity, because of its location, it actually challenges you – how do you tell that history? So there’s a grave it in of Rutledge Kane, a very famous Belfast Orangeman, and minister of the Church of Ireland and he was instrumental in creating opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill, but on his headstone it says “A loyal Irish patriot”. So if you think you’re a loyal, you think you’re an Irish patriot, and with loyalist you’ll say, how does that fit in? And the same with unionist heart, the heart of modern-day unionists who would not adopt the term Irish, nor even Irish Patriot and yet this man who was key in opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill sees himself as Irish and sees himself in the context of the culture of this island. And there doesn’t seem to be a conflict in his life between how he sees himself as a unionist, and he is, and how he sees himself culturally a part of this island. Now some modern day unionists would find that difficult too… so I think that’s the challenge.

RS: If I can ask one more question of you its what do you see the legacy of the Troubles on the City Cemetery story?

TH: In what sense?

RS: I guess I’m aware that the Troubles has affected everybody in respect of all the areas… and my impression, my impression of what the Troubles has led about to, as you intimated in some of your articles a couple of years ago, was the protestant abandonment of the area for a while at least and obviously there’s a lot of vandalism that has occurred and neglect which…

TH: …I think the word ‘abandon’ is too, too strong. I just think circumstances, you know. This area was, you might say, in the middle of a war zone, people were frightened. And then the practice – cus when I would often do the walks I hear from people that they used to come every Sunday, but the nature of the conflict then, people were frightened to come and are still a bit frightened. And in some senses stories of vandalism, mayhem in graveyards, reinforce that message, whereas in fact if someone is coming along to the cemetery and they are frightened, all they have to do is speak to the staff. The staff at the cemetery are brilliant. Staff in the cemetery will bring them to a grave, you know will find out for them… so it is, I think it is changed. But of course one of the ways it impacted of course was for instance Pat Finucane is buried there; a young woman called Livingstone who was killed by a plastic bullet is buried there; there’s the very first ‘blanket man’ Kieran Nugent, is buried at the top end. So you can begin to see there are a number of burials that have taken place there that reflect that element of the conflict. Although Milltown is a lot more serious, Milltown really is really reflective of the trauma, and all dimensions of it, suffered by the Belfast Catholic population during the conflict.

RS: Thank you. I don’t want to take up any more….

TH: I don’t mean that at all to sound sort of political but I think there is challenges there. How do you tell the story? So when I was in Milltown. The one thing I don’t want to do when I bring people on a walk is to hurt them. They have sensibilities. And in fact what happened with one chap, at the end of the walk he says “You know Tom, I lost my father, my father was shot by the IRA, and this is…” But then I thought the great thing, not just that he told me that, but the fact that he was there. And to some extent I think, I think that in some ways the present political crisis really does create a view of Loyalists as one block, and they’re not.

RS: They’re not at all.

TH: Although I think that tends to make it difficult for people who actually want to say look, this is complex, layered, difficult history but its ours. Its about narrowing that ground isn’t it?

RS: I think so.

TH: The comments about learning the Irish language. As if learning a language is radically going to change your view of the world.

RS: I don’t understand that, that obstruction to the language thing because if we look back a hundred years there’s plenty of the Protestants and the ancestors of modern day loyalists who know the language.

TH: The one thing has been said about the language belonging to the Catholics of Ireland…. It doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to all the people of this island. It even belongs to people who don’t speak it. I mean I’m not an Irish speaker, but it belongs to me. It’s a part of Belfast – Béal Feirste, Shankhill, the old Church, Stormont, if you think about it all these Irish… Ardoyne, Divis, Carrickfergus, you know, Stranmillis, Ballyhackamore, we’re steeped in it.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first 'victim' of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first ‘victim’ of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

RS: It’s the language of the island really, isn’t it. We’re all just temporary custodians of the island. No, its interesting. I think I’m too middle ground to worry about some of the stuff… I don’t get worked up in the same way…

TH: Well, I wouldn’t class myself as middle ground. But I think all of us have a right to…. Once you even say that its like you start to fall into a trap. People just like the history of the city, like the history of the island, and history is difficult. There’s no use running away from that issue. Its difficult in how you tell that story. I found it more difficult to tell the story of Milltown, which first of all I thought I knew, than say the City Cemetery, cus at the time to some extent I was outside this history and as I got to know it and embrace it, but Milltown is the raw history of my experience. Which is, so… How do you deal with people killed by the IRA? How do you deal with state killings? How do you deal with British army killings? One of the things in Milltown, I tried to update the number of people killed in Belfast in the 1920s, and in Belfast in two years there were 4 or 500 people – 500. And what I find odd about it is there is such an intense discussion going on now about memory and remembrance, and yet a hundred years ago, just under 100 years ago, 90 years ago, 500 people died in this city [through] conflict. Now they’re probably remembered in terms of families, but this society doesn’t tear itself apart for that period. And its still close. I don’t know what the conclusion is but it seems to be at odds with all this talk of closure and memory…

RS: Is that not in some ways, what would you call it…? My impression about some of the issues about closure and about those specific events that we have to remember and we have to be offended by when somebody else remembers it, its almost the impression I get, but that in a way just seems to be a justification to continue the rows and the rants and the upset…

My recording runs out here. The conversation moved from the cemetery towards issues of shared history, the representation of memory, and trauma. Ground that I believe is fertile for further exploration. Politically this is, I believe, where we are frequently manipulated – emotionally steered to suit an agenda that we may not even be aware of. In 2016 we have marked the centenaries of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, and have become acutely aware that questions of loyalty and nationality were incredibly complex for many of those involved in those struggles. Belfast remains a divided city, most acutely observed in the working class districts – spurred on by fear and a sense of disenfranchisement and neglect. But those communities which are being deprived of social development and investment have more in common with each other and their mindsets than they might realise.

As someone from a mostly Protestant background, I wish more would pay attention to the history of the city and venture back into the City Cemetery and reclaim their relatives’ plots. The desecration of plots, and in particular repeated attacks on the Jewish plots which this interview didn’t even get near examining, shows a violent hatred and xenophobia which should not be tolerated in a modern city.

My thanks to Tom Hartley for spending the time talking to me. I can heartily (pun intended) recommend both his books on the histories of the cemeteries, available from Blackstaff Press. Links below.

I’d be interested in continuing these conversations with other interested parties. Please contact me via the blog comments, Facebook, or via email to rjesimpson[at]gmail[dot]com.

Belfast City Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

Milltown Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

Fall apart and start again

27 Nov
photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

“Hold your breath and count to ten. Fall apart and start again…”

Healing involves change. It is impossible for things to go back as they once were, the scars reshape our countenance. That doesn’t mean things have to be totally different, but one needs to accept the changes, grand and subtle.

As I continue my healing process I evolve. I recognise more of my failings, things holding me back, and I seek to improve. Compared to a year ago I am a different person. But I’m still held back from achieving full potential. Fear does that a lot. Fear of failure. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of hurting someone else. Fear of making the same mistakes.

But that’s all very negative. Destructively so, because if fear rules then I don’t take chances. And then I never progress personally or professionally. And so I’m pushing past the fear as best I can.

I’m in the middle of overhauling my social media profiles. Regenerating my presence. I had left myself too exposed, shared too much for too long. Let it be an outlet at times when I should have said nothing.

It’s difficult to turn one’s back on a decade of posts, photos, memories, but it’s the right thing to do. A clean slate to make new memories, new conversations.

All summer and winter Facebook has assailed me with memories of my past, and far too often they were memories of the abusive relationship that nearly killed me. Photos would be highlighted; comments under other posts showed her name, more photos. Memories start flooding back. Caught up in a nascent relationship in the present, I panicked, projected, and began the descent into another break down – my first in years. Without that social media I don’t believe this would have happened, or certainly not as severely. It won’t be allowed to happen again.

And so it’s all going. I’m going to have to part with the positive memories too, but the cleanse is the only way to move forward now, and I’ve been putting it off for a long time. A brand new profile. Like a new identity – its me. But one in which the narrative has yet to be set.

I’ve begun my clear out of possessions too – also imbued with memories of the past. I’m as much a hoarder as a collector, and I can no longer see the wood for the trees – I don’t need it. I want to build a future for myself. An existence unencumbered by associations. Anything I keep around me should be positive, not negative. I want to be able to pursue the career and indeed life path I need without holding back. Less clutter. Less retrospectivity. Less baggage.

My other social media profiles will regenerate too. Some more obviously than others. A little less of me is no bad thing. Whatever latent narcissism I may possess, is just going to have to learn how to begin again. A comparatively clean slate. A space for a new me, a new life. One in which I push myself and be the best version of me I can be.

Closure

22 Nov

Everything ends. Closure is vital for healing. Without it our minds spiral, caught always wondering. Recognising and accepting it isn’t always easy. And sometimes we are left without the closure we need – injustices left unpunished, things left unsaid, ourselves wanting.

With that in mind I’m bringing part of this blog to an end, and am making some rare redactions. I’ve let too much of me on display at times. I’ve upset people that matter to me. I have frightened them away. My expositions are colouring impressions in a negative and misleading way. I am hurting myself as a result. And it cannot continue.

I am changing the tone. It will remain personally flavoured but differently so. My relationships are off limits from now on, in the blog and in my private life. I’ve unwittingly damaged those I’ve pursued as I let my stream of conscious flow. I crossed a line I wish I hadn’t.

While I will try and depersonalise some of the narrative, I will maintain some personal content relating to my mental health issues and the affects of my abusive experiences on my life. I do not wish to be a victim. But there is still much work to be done on both issues, and too many struggle to accept that someone can exist with mental health problems and live a normal life. Even more struggle to accept a man can be abused by a woman, but it is important I continue to speak the truth on that matter – the abuse was real, it happened, and it happens for thousands of others every day. It does not define me, but it has shaped me.

I must, however, be more conscious about the way that my words can be used against me and others close to me.

It is time to shut the door on the past. My living space is swamped with shit and it needs set free. I shall be ebaying and dumping in the coming weeks. It is OK to say goodbye to memories. I don’t need every tiny bit of personal memorabilia. It clusters my mind and my life. It leaves me living in an unhealthy past, blinkered to the positives of the present.

There are those who think I cannot change, but they are wrong. I evolve constantly. I have been healing and continue to heal. I will conquer those challenges which put themselves in my life. I would prefer to have a partner with me, but I fear that my frankness and past makes me an impossible prospect. And so I must live alone.

I am putting myself first, and will embrace the positive things in my life. This year has been amazing and I can’t loose sight of that. Next year will be even better. As this incarnation of my writing closes, something else opens up. It regenerates – the same thing but different. Give it a chance, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Trigger me this Facebook

16 Nov
A LIFE magazine still for Hans Richter's film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946)

A LIFE magazine still for Hans Richter’s film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946)

Trauma and depression are difficult enough to live with, the scars left by episodes remain raw no matter how long the healing has been. The tiniest scratch and the wound starts weeping. Before you know it, you’ve been transported back to another place and another episode is in full flow. At least that’s my experience.

You will no doubt be familiar with the idea that certain smells in particular can transport you back into your memory banks – that waft of perfume as you walk along the street, an odour in a restaurant – but it isn’t unique to scent. Images and sounds can do the same thing. I’ve written before about the importance of memory and images, and there are songs that take me back to very specific moments in my youth and revitalise long-forgotten feelings. While this can be a therapeutic and pleasant experience for those of us who have lived with abuse, or suffered mental breakdowns, memory is a tricky terrain to negotiate.

Social media is rich with trigger potential. Many of us share the sort of insights into our private lives that a decade ago would have been deemed inappropriate. We detail our travels, our partners, our dinners, our very bowel movements. Go far enough back into our public profiles and we’ll find traces of a life we’ve moved on from – our younger selves, warts and all.

Facebook in particular provides a daily digest of memories without any sort of filtration system at all. Their ‘On This Day‘ brings up posts you made or were tagged in on/around today’s date in years gone past. Among the cute pictures of animals and family and work outings are things I don’t wish to recall, let alone reshare with those around me. This time of year it turns out is packed full of them, and those Facebook memories are at least partly responsible for triggering my last break down.

I like to recall nice memories, but I’ve been on social media long enough now that there are also memories of previous partners and my lives with them, which played out at least partly in a public/semi-public sphere. Friends/spectators will recall at least some of the drama, but generally have the good decency not to bring it up when we meet. Unlike Facebook, which deems it appropriate to regale me with anecdotes from not only the partners I remain fond of, but also those I am not.

Today’s memories include jaunts to London (no change there then), moving house, publicity on the magazine I edited that I later learned was being published by two con-artists, photos of my abusive partner and examples of comments that might have come across to some as wit, but which read now like mild examples of the abusive treatment I lived with for too long.

I cannot completely avoid this. I’ve untagged myself from various things, made other images and posts private. But I also have issues with denying the past ever happened. Much of it is a matter of public record anyway, so editing seems somehow disrespectful and false. And unhelpful to my healing. Being reminded of the shit that was foisted upon me simply serves to strengthen my resolve, but there is a cost. Some of the memories trigger further memories and its frightening. I don’t want to delete my profile and start again because within the memories of abuse there are also stories of friendships past, loved ones lost and much positivity – how to balance that? A friend of mine with very similar experiences simply deleted their profile completely – too overwhelming was the triggers from the past, the negative memories. For me doing that would remove what little good I had from my own period of abuse and would run counter to my policy of being open as a coping mechanism.

If I’m completely frank, I fucking hate this. I never know which memories are going to be revived on which days. I don’t know which will trigger a period of negative association. Sometimes I can see a photo from then and its fine. Other days, I’ve encountered other triggers and the cumulative effect becomes too much to handle. My abuser has always denied any form of abuse took place (a common practice with abusers it seems). But images provoke strong memories from me. And sometimes the words, photos, video, audio files support my memory of events which causes even more triggers.

Immediately before I had my most recent breakdown I had been going through old files. A bunch of Facebook memories had started the process, then I came across a set of old photographs – images in that tricky area of not being enough to set off a trigger by themselves, but in association with other data they do. And then there were the recordings – listening to my own voice filled with terror and anxiety, voice mails left by my abuser – I daren’t even contemplate it deeply because of how they set me off last time. That narrative I have repeatedly been told (by my abuser) that suggests I am a fabricator of facts, quickly vanishes and accompanied by solid proof I recall exactly how things were. How alone and fragile and scared I was. How vulnerable it has made me today.

Our social media accounts are usually rife with false positivity. We cultivate an online image that presents ourself in our best light. We admit to our successes and over-egg minor achievements and ignore our failings, our stresses, our depressions. Consequently when the shit hits the fan, those around us sit bewildered by the sudden change. The late Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner used to remind audiences that ‘the memory cheats’, and the same can be true of Facebook memories. The false positivity can ignore much of the problems, and the casual observer might be lulled back into a false sense of nostalgia and lost hope. In an instance of an abusive partner they might forget the problems with drink or drugs, they might overlook the coercive controlling behaviour, and almost certainly will never find a trace of the physical abuses suffered. We forget the warning signs and we end up repeating our mistakes, and push away those who offer an alternative. Certainly I’m scared of those in whom I recognise myself – but they’re the only people who really get it, because they’ve lived it and neither they nor I wish to suffer like that again. Others can be sympathetic, but they lack the true empathy needed to keep us strong.

My own social media history fluctuates between the brave face of positivity – and I can usually tell when I’ve been coerced into posting something vaguely positive – and out and out cries for help. I’ve seen them come up in my feed before – moments where I’ve been threatened, where I’m struggling to make sense of a relationship spiraling downwards. Times where I’ve outed myself before some dark aspect of myself is utilised as a weapon against me. It still happens. I’m free of my abuser, but not their impact on my life. So afraid have I been that I’ve been overprotective of myself, family and potential partners. Just when I think I’m okay again, Facebook reminds me of what I went through at their hands and why I remain on my guard.

For someone who has made his professional life based around the past and nostalgia I am at a loss for how to proceed with my own past – particularly one which social media has decreed I must recall when I really don’t want to. Deletion is denial. It absolves those who persecute our thoughts. Admission provokes anxiety, tension and further depression.

Self-worth

5 Nov
Stairway. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson

Stairway. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson

How we view ourselves very much affects the relationships we form. Our potential for eternal happiness is shaped by how we feel about ourselves more probably more than how we feel about our partners. Somebody suggested to me that as a nation we get the politicians we deserve. The same could be argued for out objects d’amour.

My self esteem isn’t great. For all the performance-based work that I do, I have a low sense of my own worth. I find it hard to sing my own praises, and tend to shy away in the corner. I find it difficult to take compliments. I love receiving them, but am overcome with a sense of embarrassment when someone tells me how gifted or pleasant I am.

It is I think ruining my chances of a relationship.

I find that I am overly cautious about setting into something with another person. Part of that is the hard-learned lessons of life experience, but most of the time I simply can’t believe that anybody would actually find me interesting enough to want to be with, attractive enough to want. And so I inadvertently make the whole damn thing more difficult than it needs to be. I struggle with PDAs, because I don’t think I deserve them. I put myself down. I find excuses for things not to work out. I place hypothetical obstacles in the way – not helped by being an over-thinker anyway. I give them all the space in the world to leave, to not have to commit to this fuck up of an individual. That becomes very difficult to take after a while.

Essentially I don’t think I’m good enough to warrant happiness. I don’t deserve to find the solace of a loving situation. I must feel pain and rejection and disappointment. For the bleakness confirms my darker thoughts about myself. It sustains my senseless solitude.

Constantly there is a battle within me to find a balance. Because while I do myself no favours, I do have a heart – I know deep down that I am a good person, capable of loving and deserving of someone else’s love. In the right nurturing environment I could be an excellent partner, lover, friend, father. But to get there, I need to feel comfortable. And to feel comfortable, I will probably test your patience, your views, your sincerity. I will test me, my interest, my trust, my willingness to compromise. I can live alone. I spent years in isolation. But I don’t want to live to my life end alone. I want to have someone to share it with, a companion, an intimate. That’s a normal human desire. I just don’t think anyone has quite enough patience to see us through the more testing days.

Dating as I’ve so often said, is a nightmare. I don’t make first moves as a rule. A lot of that is down to issues of consent and not wanting to be misunderstood, but it is also because I don’t believe people will think I’m worth it. I’m too much like hard work. I have little self-worth.

I suppose this is what manifested itself a fortnight ago when I had my breakdown. An overloading of self-doubt that had been building for several months. I loathe the ineffectual nature of my self-hatred, my insecurity. I talk about it to counter-act the affect it has on me, but still it wins. I drive the people I care about away. I worry that one day I’ll end up ageing and desperate and cling to a poisonous abusive partner because they will once again remind me of how useless I am, how worthless my existence has been and how nobody else would want me. Someone I am with because there is no choice left. Because the people I would have chosen rejected me because I am me.