Malachi O'Doherty: Reinterpreting Belfast

The author and journalist on the One City One Book initiative, and seeing his city anew

A city is an organism. It evolves much as an organism does, adapting to the needs of today and again to the needs of tomorrow, retaining its history, never at any time being shaped precisely as anyone would want it now.

Only the repairs and extensions come off blueprints. New roads, high rise buildings, markets and hospitals are squeezed in where they’ll fit, among the thoroughfares and the warrens of little streets. Every town planner is just making do with the city’s inheritance, never able to start again with a blank page.

And writers know this. The clutter of a city’s past may be a nuisance to those who need to facilitate buses and juggernauts on roads built for horse drawn carriages or the smaller cars of the 1950s, but there is narration in the shambles.

One Book, One City, a UK-wide initiative that encourages city dwellers to read a chosen book and come together in a shared love for literature at events planned during the month of May, recognises that text and urban sprawl are just different media of storytelling.

Glenn Patterson uncovers the potential for reading a city in his latest novel, The Mill For Grinding Old People Young, and takes us with his 19th century characters into streets that have changed in our time.

And since a story is an individual thing, we all have our different Belfasts. Residents of the city have different maps in our heads relating our own formative years spent growing up here, and no two maps are the same.

Patterson does not ask us to accept his vision of an earlier Belfast as the only one possible, and One City, One Book is not about imposing a vision of the historic Belfast on us as much as inviting people to reconsider the city as text, recounting infinite stories from an inconceivable number of perspectives, including one’s own.

I could draw a map of Belfast starting with the bits I knew first, leaning most heavily to darken the lines of the roads I used most often. And it would be a city that exists across time rather that at any specific moment. The Belfast of my imagination still has the News Letter offices in Donegall Street, The Ard Scoil in Divis Street, the GNR and Smithfield. I think most of us over a certain age keep Smithfield in our imagined map.

Patterson’s book tells a story but it does more; it reminds us that there are diverse ways of remembering a city. And it does this at a time when political and cultural forces, which would seek to describe the city’s history in the service of causes, are losing their hold over our thinking.

The Mill For Grinding Old People Young, like much memoir as well, shifts the frame of those who want us to see the present explained by the past and shows us the past being awkwardly unobliging and interesting.

Hopefully the many events planned around the theme of One City One Book will do something similar, and that is the value of bringing other writers like Ivan Little, Gary Law, Cathy Martin, Robert McMillen and myself to the project.

I came into Belfast as a child when the entire landscape seemed made up of half finished housing estates and the open fields beyond. My childhood games included scrambling through building sites and wrecking haystacks.

This is an unrecorded cityscape. I went to school and met boys from tight little streets who swung on lamp-posts and played handball as they had practised it on sooty gables. The reference map in the head of a place that was ordinary and familiar was individual to each of us, but we probably never considered that that was what made us different, sometimes fascinating, sometimes difficult.

So what I hope is achieved by One Book One City is that more people discover that the city is their book and always has been, and that there is nothing strange at all in it not being like anyone else’s.

One City One Book 2012 is supported by Belfast City Council, Libraries NI, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Faber and Faber. Download the full programme of events taking place in libraries and other venues across Belfast at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website.

Malachi O'Doherty gives a lecture entitled Reinterpreting Belfast at the Shankill Library on Thursday, May 31 at 4pm.