“Get it up on the wall,” Des Jones says of plaster. “You can do what you like with it later.” He’s married to my husband’s cousin, Susan and he’s handled a quare few walls in his time. So I’ve got my book on Place and Displacement ‘”up on the wall’ this afternoon, tens of thousands of words, and I’ll put the finishing touches to it when I’ve had a metaphorical cup of tea. (The illustration is the cross-section of the house from the speculator’s submission to Belfast City Council. It’s the dream of the house before it became a reality, one of thousands of parlour houses built for the expanding city.)
I’ve had to go and have a bit of a lie-down too because the work has covered several years of research and preparation and centuries of event and my head is full of architectural and historical details. I received a Support for the Individual Artist Award (SIAP) from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2019 towards research for this book.
This piece of work started as ‘a bit of context’ for a set of poems I’ve written about the house of my childhood and my experiences of growing up in east Belfast in the Sixties and Seventies. It gave me the opportunity to focus the search for my paternal grandfather which I’ve been carrying out, off and on, since the Eighties when I made a TV documentary which touched on some of the material. My grandfather was almost never spoken of in my childhood and it has taken much careful research, over many years, to tease out his story. I kept everything I came across and, over time, connections have matured, as I have, and I feel I am more able, at this stage, to see the broader picture.
It also became a forensic investigation of, not only the house, but the area, the field in which it was built and the people who put up the money for it, designed it, built it and first lived in it. It’s an account of belonging, and not being allowed to belong.
Lockdown meant I had to change my approach to the writing. I was just about to begin a month of living back in the street where the house is, as a way of comparing and contrasting the present and the past, but I’d chosen 18th March 2020 as my start date and, as you’ll all remember, the first lock-down was announced on the 23rd. Thankfully, because I’ve been researching off and on for more than thirty years and I’ve been observing and listening since childhood, I had amassed considerable information.
Once a house is created it becomes a kind of nest for those who live in it. If one is forcibly put out of the nest many loose ends result. I feel as though I have been tracing those broken fibres and trying to knot them together again, to make myself more whole than I am.
Talking of metaphors, there is a handful there! I can now see that my particular life is, I might say, the result of various conjunctions and fractures. The decisions people made, for good and ill motives, resulted in my particular life and the conditions in which I grew. Having looked back so carefully to follow threads here and there across four centuries, I feel as though I have reached a point where I know more securely what has gone into the making of me. I decide who I am, but the ground on which I make that decision has been shaped by generations.
Exactly a year ago my friend, Caroline Glass responded to my request for a little bit of help with a marvellously exact and lengthy substantial research document on the building of the house, and her assistance with genealogical facts has been absolutely invaluable. Interruptions such as lockdown, and other work, mean it has taken me longer than I expected to reach today’s point
I have benefitted from experts sharing their knowledge with such grace and patience. I won’t attempt to name them here but I look forward to doing that properly when the book is published, as I hope it will be.
I have yet to write the concluding, short afterword that pulls the threads together, though, in a way, the poems which begin the book lay out, with that economy and pungency which poetry offers, a kind of tapestry (á la Bayeux) of — I could say — major scenes of my life but that’s portentous and pretentious. Most of these are more like glimpses of small turning-points, recognised only in the looking back.
Lashing plaster on or embroidering, stitch by stich, I’m working my way towards an account of my life and the communities in which it implicates me.
I am also beginning to realise how central to my imaginative life is the concept of home. I am, for instance, working on a poetry collection on the theme of Sanctuary, along with several other poets I’ve ‘invited in’. I received another SIAP Award to help with this. The collection will be completed by the end of the year.
I need a good title as ‘Place and Displacement’ sounds more suited to a thesis! What I’ve written is a blend of poetry and prose, a love song to a house and an area, a parting of the long grass to read the inscriptions of the past, a celebration of realtionships and of future possibilities.
My collection of 26 short stories set in Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy has just been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story prize: A City Burning