A few mornings ago I got into the back of a black taxi outside Culturlann. The mood in taxis varies: sometimes there is little or no conversation, other times there are exchanges and banter between people who would be strangers if it weren’t for the fact that by living in West Belfast they have a shared experience and a strong sense of belonging.
A man opposite me leaned forward. He smelt of cigarettes and some dying drink and asked did I know where the Simon Community house was as he was looking for a friend there. He had been told it was opposite Milltown Cemetery. We were just passing Rosemary House at the top of St James’ and I said that that might be the place but that Milltown was further up and it was where I was getting out. So, we got out at Milltown and walked to the Felons Club for directions. We were told that the place he was looking for was the place that we had just passed and he said he would walk back.
We walked together for a bit and spoke. I couldn’t place his accent. He said he lived in the Valleys in Wales but that he was born in Gibson Street in the Falls and had left Belfast in 1961 when he was eleven. He had been back only one other time in forty-two years but he was proud that when another stranger in the same taxi had asked for directions to the Blackstaff he was able to direct him. He seemed euphoric about being back on the Falls Road, feasted his eyes on every corner and said he remembered playing with Gerry Adams when they were kids and before Gerry moved to Ballymurphy. He noticed that the Bee Hive was now called Caffreys and the Broadway Bar the Red Devil.
Later, I was set thinking about the place we call home. After just a fortnight’s holiday one’s street and house look as if they have undergone a subtle change. For former prisoners and those who have emigrated the changes are startling upon return after a significant absence and there is a touch of sadness to that feeling, nostalgia for the way things were.
West Belfast might sometimes appear mundane but it has a generous heart and soul and there is security in its familiarity for those of us who stayed. I see women in a pub or in the Kennedy Centre who four decades ago once were in the uniform of St Louise’s or St Rose’s. They were fresh-faced, raised their hemlines coming from school, put on lipstick and smoked behind the shops. They are now grandmothers, a bit case-hardened, but they are the same laughing girls whose berets we stole and who cried to have them back. I have, without even a nod, passed men on the road, bald or grey-haired, with whom I played in St Teresa’s schoolyard, and beside whom in West Belfast together we have lived parallel lives, never sharing those fading memories, but comforted still that our background is one of familiar faces and places.
But what of those who left, either out of economic necessity or for quest or adventure? The place they settled became their second ‘home’. They established a profession, made new friends, and had families in a country and city of their own choosing. Yet in their second home they live on unsure ground and are often plagued with a sense of dislocation. The second home always has a temporary feel to it and yet the family home and place, which they left and which grew old in their absence, changed in their absence and does not involve them in its intimacies.
One of my favourite novels about estrangement and belonging is ‘Knulp’ by Hermann Hesse, set in the early 1900s. Knulp left home in his teens after a girl, Franziska, broke his heart. He became a tramp and wandered the villages of southern Germany. Now in his forties and terminally ill he wants to see his native Gerbersau before he dies.
“The homecomer savoured the light and air, the sounds and smells of his native town, and the exciting, appeasing feeling of being at home: the crush of peasants and townspeople at the cattle market… the familiar street names, each one shrouded in a dense and restless swarm of memories. With his whole being the wanderer drank in the enchantment of home, of recognition, of memory, of comradeship with every street corner and every curbstone.”
But, in his late father’s garden “the old currant bushes… were gone, they had not been eternal and indestructible, someone had dug them up and made a fire; wood and roots and withered leaves had burned all together, and no one had mourned for them… The neighbour’s lilac tree had grown old; it was withered and covered in moss. The latticework garden house was a ruin. And whatever they built in its place could never be as beautiful and pleasant and right as it had been… From the new church steeple, which changed the face of the city, a new bell rang loud.”
Worse still, Knulp learns that Franzisca is dead and he realised that he had come back solely on her account.
Last month my father’s sister Margaret, who left here in the mid-fifties when she was 17, and her husband Ronnie (they live in the USA) visited Belfast for the first time in thirty-five years. She was born in Springview Street – which is now gone – but her old school, St Catherine’s still looks the same. Her eyes lit up when we visited Dunville Park. She showed us the spot at the crumbling Victorian fountain where she fell in, aged four, and cut her knee. The Falls was home and it seemed only yesterday.
“Our past is a pile of broken pieces,” wrote Edgar Reitz, the director of the German film cycle, ‘Heimat’ (which imperfectly translates as ‘home’ or ‘homeland’), one of the milestones in the history of television.
“When we remember, we take those little mosaic pieces and build a new life with them. When we write down our memories or make a film about them, we snatch a bit of life away from death and put it on a level where it can exist longer. In that there is a kind of love.”
True. But, in the end, there is no place like home.