My Mother-City

Gerald Dawe's account of a city in transition enlightens Ross Moore

Check any reviews of Gerald Dawe’s writings, of both his poetry and prose, and inevitably certain terms recur: honesty, accuracy, exactitude, particularity.

The strength of Dawe’s poetry lies neither in metaphoric gymnastics nor linguistic pyrotechnics, rather in its deeply evocative attention to the everyday details or, more often, to the remembered accruements of daily life. Often, his is a poetry where past and present exist coterminously, as in the south Belfast streetscape from Lake Geneva’s ‘Laughter and Forgetting’ (2003), where:

The houses on both sides
  change hands each year –
broken banisters, the ancient
  skylight, Ireland Saturday Nights
at the back of the water tank.

In a few lines Dawe has captured the shift in a neighbourhood, the manner in which a once settled residential area has, over recent decades, become a more transitory one of student housing, short term rentals and equally short term business ventures.

What adds authority, and gives that sense of exactitude attributed to Dawe’s writing, is the inclusion of local detail. The newspapers propped behind the water tank form an image that evoke a lost period of habitual residency which existed among these terraces before a present which finds ‘a restaurant in what / was somebody’s front room’. (Though for all that memories, or typesetters, can be tricky, wasn’t the paper called Ireland’s Saturday Night?)

This particular sense of accuracy runs through Gerald Dawe’s recent memoir, My Mother-City. Much of it will be familiar to readers of Dawe’s prose: it expands on a section of his 1998 chapbook The Rest is History, comprising of and reworking other essays, notably ‘The Revenges of the Heart: Belfast and the poetics of space’ which appeared in The Cities of Belfast (2003).

But this expanded compilation is welcome, particularly as Dawe has maintained such a sustained engagement with Belfast throughout both his academic and poetic career. The autobiographical sketches of the city span Dawe’s childhood through the 1950s, stretching through to the early 1970s, when Dawe’s time at the University of Ulster coincided with the emergent Troubles.

In the early 1970s Dawe left for Galway, before taking up a position in Trinity College Dublin in 1988. Given this, his vision of Belfast is concerned with what changed or, more exactly, with what other potentials may have existed before the recent conflict. If his poetry can veer at times towards the lucidly prosaic, so too can Dawe’s prose become lyrically heightened. The book opens with: ‘Coming into Belfast is like approaching a sunken city’, while a weekend night on the town, sometime in the late 1950s to early 1960s, provides an original take on the city centre:

‘A Friday or Saturday night was the chance to be part of a picture-show in which everybody who ventured out had style and became an actor. Belfast’s city centre, with the light spilling out from the plate-glass shopfront windows and the perpetual flow of buses was actually like a stage set for drama. And drama there was. Lover’s met ‘down town’, had drinks, and went to the pictures or to a classy ballroom.’

Happy days. But Dawe remains realistic, describing the sectarian divisions which existed, if less obtrusively, in the city before the Troubles, he writes:

‘Eventually, the political divisions of the city, crackling like an electric storm in the future, were earthed in precisely these intensely intimate and cross-grained inner lives of the city’s myriad neighbourhoods.’

This lyrical sentence makes an historically astute comment. Throughout the memoir Dawe comes up with fascinating pieces of sociology, delineating at one point, for example, the class divisions inherent in the layout of inner-city terrace housing. Elsewhere, he tries to pin down the indefinable, as when he identifies a moment in the late 1960s where he discerns: ‘the fleeting growth of a renovated, energetic, non-sectarian generation, … critically engaged by literature … motivated by a sense of civil society’ and which ‘was critically invisible and remains a phantom’.

Dawe is drawn to explore places and times which, for him, geographically embody this sense of civic liberalism. In the north Belfast of his childhood (presumably the Skegoneill, Jellicoe and Ashfield areas) he finds one such place, where: ‘Not only did Protestants and Catholics live side by side but also a significant Jewish minority and a varied community of sects and post-war refugees. The cultural diversity we hear so much about these days was a living, if unexpressed, reality in the late 1950s and early 60s.’

Dawe posits the idea that historically mixed areas may ‘resurface in the years ahead’ but tempers this with a recognition of the increasing Balkanisation of the city (which, ironically, particularly applies to north Belfast). He is always careful to allow that it remains a place ‘rich in possibility’.

Some of this sense of hybridity and possibility becomes personified for Dawe in cultural figures such as Stewart Parker (one of Irish literature’s ‘most liberated and articulate voices’), Brian Moore (‘hard to pin down, along with the suave stylishness and urban wit, all of which strike me as peculiarly Belfast') and, most centrally, Van Morrison.

To my mind at least, Dawe puts too much importance upon Van Morrison as central to the cultural archipelago of the city and Irish cultural life in general. He goes so far as to link Morrison with Patrick Kavanagh stating that ‘Kavanagh’s voice of dissatisfaction with convention … strengthened by his subjective romanticism … is very close to the poetic vision of Astral Weeks’.

But despite these reservations, surely it’s a good thing that a conception of Belfast can navigate along such cultural co-ordinates?  It also provides Dawe with the opportunity to engage in some first rate music criticism. Take these comments on Morrison’s Astral Weeks album for example:

‘Cyprus Avenue is not only a place, it is the idea of another place; the railway, the river: all are conduits through which Morrison’s imagination is released.’

Or, speaking of the song ‘Madame George’:

‘The shock of hearing the phrase, ‘On a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row’ has never quite left me. An inexplicable connection, coded beneath the words themselves, identified for the first time the actual city in which I lived.’

Bit Parts, the second part of Dawe’s memoir, is more directly autobiographical, opening with a description of his Huguenot great-grandfather, whom he never met, but remained fascinated as a child by his ‘patriarchal unionism.’ He describes a Protestant Belfast where the home retained World War II black-out blinds throughout the 1950s, where the ‘Belfast of the ’50s and early ’60s was for me synonymous with football’, where weekends were spent watching countless matches in the local club (Brantwood), and summers holidaying in Bangor.

Even when describing later political activism, as a student in Coleraine, there is always a sense that Dawe is striving for an exact honesty, and shunning hyperbole (‘I still find it difficult to write of that time or to reassemble in my mind my feelings and expectations, because as one of a group from widely differing backgrounds, the dangers did not seem so real’.)

Dawe is writing of a place and time that is awash with ready-made versions and stereotypes; given this, his particularity of approach imbues his memoir with a particular type of honesty. He ends the book with his poem ‘Quartz’ which imagines a distant relative arriving as an emigrant on these shores, and tells her story (‘apocryphal in part’), of landing mistakenly in Belfast and transforming it into something else:

… I want to know
who your grand dame was, or paterfamilias,
disembarking in a draughty shed, thinking

Liverpool or Belfast was really New York,
blinking in the greyish light of a noisy dawn.

There are many versions of Belfast of course. It is to Dawe’s credit that he eschews stereotypes and generalities. His attention is drawn instead to hybridities, to overlooked details; he refuses to re-tell Belfast according to one or other of its established versions. In privileging the particular over the general, Dawe ensures that his own memoir of the city rings true, while still leaving space for others. As he writes:

‘Maybe from these hidden, uncanonical sources a deeper sense of a common culture will surface in 21st century Northern Ireland, indeed throughout the country as a whole, and that these differences of background will be in future celebrated rather than locked away as idiosyncratic bit-parts in the big picture.’

Gerald Dawe’s My Mother-City reminds us that there are countless versions of Belfast and always many tales to be told.

Ross Moore

Gerald Dawe’s My Mother-City is out now, published by Lagan Press.