The recent flare-up of violence in Northern Ireland brought back memories of the province when I visited as a young TV researcher in the mid-1980s. Belfast felt very familiar to me, with the same rainy gloom and down-to-earth inhabitants that I associated with Scotland. And yet there were massive barricades running between ordinary urban terraced houses and armored tanks prowled around the streets. It was a place of random checkpoints, massive lurid murals on every wall, and loud explosions in the night. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a war zone, and I was fascinated to witness the way the conflict intersected and intertwined with the daily life of the people.
A decade later, I took those few days in Belfast and built a novel around them. I called it The Province of the Imagination. If anyone had ever told me I’d write a political thriller, I’d have laughed out loud, but my plot seemed to grow organically from the powerful sense of place the city had left me with. The agents and publishers to whom I sent it were largely complimentary but said that – with the passing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 – the Northern Ireland novel was passé. Perhaps as the Troubles recede into the past (recent events notwithstanding), I should try sending it out again, this time as a historical novel set in a time not only before peace but before cell phones, digital photography, and the Internet.
Here’s an extract. Sandie Gillespie is a BBC journalist on assignment in Belfast. Earlier that day, she has interviewed Danny McGarrigle, the President of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and he is now taking her for a late night drive to show her around the city.
The car’s engine had a quiet expensive sound. Sandie was intensely conscious of the stripe of the seat belt across her chest, the power locks on the car doors. She had surrendered herself to the situation, alone with the notorious man beside her.For once, there was no rain, just roiling clouds blowing over the city. The streets were quiet, but a helicopter cut across the sky above them, its floodlight trailing behind it. Danny McGarrigle chuckled. “They won’t be catching anybody if they wave that thing around like that.”Sandie glanced across at him. His hands were loose on the wheel, his middle fingers tapping it as if to the rhythm of a tune in his head. He looked over at her and smiled. She felt the smile slide through her and loosen up her body like a finger pushed into an over-ripe fruit. Sandie sat up straighter and pressed her knees together, afraid that her body might let her mind loosen its vigilance. She mustn’t get too comfortable with him.“Where are we going?” she asked, watching an armored police Land Rover pass them in the other direction. McGarrigle didn’t answer for a minute. Sandie saw him look steadily into his rear view mirror. The headlights that had been behind them turned off into a side street and she saw his shoulders relax.“We’re going up the Ardoyne,” he said, “I want you to see where I grew up.”....... She looked out of the window at the row of locked garages they were passing. It felt like a lonely, dangerous place to be, and she felt a shiver that was half-fear, half-excitement run down her back. The road rose beneath them as they headed up into the narrow terraced streets of North Belfast. Sandie leaned forward, realizing that here was the front line of the urban war. Towering surreally above the brick back-to-backs was the peace line, a massive barricade topped with barbed wire erected right down the middle of the terraced streets, dividing them right across the middle so that not so much as a look need pass between neighbors.“My god,” Sandie murmured, “It’s worse than the Berlin Wall. Look how close it is to those houses.”“Nobody’s brought you up here before?” he asked, carefully maneuvering the car through the maze of streets beneath the overwhelming wall. Sandie shook her head, “We just got here,” she murmured, absorbed in what she was seeing. Every so often, the terraces opened out into acres of wasteland where houses used to stand. Brazier fires burned at each corner, with one or two men hanging around the warmth despite the lateness of the hour. Even through the closed car window, Sandie could smell the heavy, sweet smoke from coal fires, an old-fashioned smell that reminded her of childhood.McGarrigle stopped the car and took one hand off the steering wheel to lean across her and point. “I grew up in that house over there - 11, Loughgall Street.”Although some of the houses in the terrace looked occupied and there were even touching signs of pride in the net curtains in the windows and the ornaments on the sill, Number 11 was like a gap tooth, blackened, the windows sealed with breeze blocks.“Some Loyalist kids tried to burn it down last year. Just because I lived there a million years ago.”