Thursday, 30 June 2011

Memories of Belfast - two

Iconic Image of Samson and Goliath Cranes
Belfast sits on a site that has been occupied since the Bronze Age, around 3200-600 BC. It has, however, only become a fairly substantial settlement since the 17th Century.

Cambridge may be a Jewel on the Cam, but Belfast is a Jewel on the Lagan. To take the title of Joshua Levine's journey through the troubles, and narrow it down to Belfast, the City is both 'Beauty' and 'Atrocity'. Both have existed side by side for generations, and I have seen, and experienced both.

While the beauty has always been there, it has been enhanced since the Peace Process. Through the same process, the atrocity has diminished, but unfortunately it has not disappeared. There are still men of violence, albeit few in number, who wish to make life uncomfortable for the majority. My memories are about a small charity working in North Belfast at a troubled interface in the middle to late 1980's. Trying to make a difference; trying to bring hope; trying to build bridges.

A poem by Ciaran Carson called 'Belfast Confetti' sums up for me, something of those times. He describes what the title means. "If there was a riot in the shipyard, they would assemble the collective nuts and bolts, iron bits for this and that and the other thing. 'For we'll throw some Belfast Confetti on them and see how they will be getting on with that'. And the accent comes across, 'Belfast Confetti' - it's not very nice".

"Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion.
Itself - an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of rapid fire ...
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head but it kept stuttering,
All the alleyways and side streets blocked with stops and colons.

I know this labyrinth so well - Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street -
Why can't I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street. Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks".

Antrim Road
My work was mainly around the lower end of the Antrim Road, within the New Lodge and Tigers Bay areas. The road (A6) starts at Clifton Circus, which is just north of the city centre, proceeds upwards through Green Castle, past Belfast Zoo, Glengormley and on to Templepatrick, where the A6 Antrim Road becomes the A6 Belfast Road.

Belfast to Templepatrick is about 13 miles, but I worked in no more that about half a mile of it. The upper Antrim Road was an area full of fine owner occupier houses and an air of affluence. The lower Antrim Road was the opposite, being full of rented properties, many in poor condition, and carrying an air of deprivation and poverty. This was an area generally of low achievement, but of high unrest and anger. This was where I worked.

In my last Blog I spoke more about the political climate, and what it took to carry on with the work. That is exciting and headline-gathering, but to fulfill our mission to make a difference, there had to be work that didn't grab the headlines; that quietly went about its business in dealing with poverty, unemployment, poor educational skills, life skills deficiencies and lack of social interaction. My job was to ensure that all of this could take place; that there were sufficient resources, both financial and human to complete the task; that barriers to success were looked at, and ways devised to bring those barriers down. For some of the work I would have hands-on involvement, for, though I was not short of staff, I enjoyed it, and I have always felt that any CEO needs to see and hear for himself what people feel and need. So, let me start to tell you about some of the work, and carry it on next time. Some of it is not necessarily spectacular, or particularly unique; it just happened to meet a need in a particular area, at a particular time, and I was proud of the projects that were started, of the staff who ran them, and of the people who attended them.

What hope does a child have ......
Literacy was one of the areas to tackle. I didn't have a great education myself, but I did enter the adult world being able to read, write and think for myself. That at least gave me the grounding to make up for early deficiencies later on.

Poor reading and writing skills hold people back from achieving their potential. Through the Action for Community Employment (ACE) programme, I was able to employ a literacy worker.

I was very fortunate to get someone who was a qualified teacher, but who can gone through some difficult times. He was also an excellent artist, as well as someone qualified to supervise gymnasium training. It was like getting three people for the price of one. Not that I took great advantage of that of course - well, perhaps just a little.

One of his pieces of art work is the picture opposite. This is a photograph, which I asked to have of his original six foot canvas painting. The title of the piece somehow seemed to sum up everything that we were about. "What hope does a child have born into a world of poverty, violence and broken glass?" 'What Hope'. Some felt that they had none; others were looking for hope but didn't know where to find it, and we were there to provide that hope.

BBC Micro Computer
I purchased a BBC Micro Computer, with teaching programmes so that the staff member could provided one to one sessions. While this would not reach the numbers that group sessions would, it would be more successful and attractive to individuals who were fearful or embarrassed about being in a programme with others.

The BBC Micro Computer was released in late 1981, and was discontinued in 1994, and in the 12 years of its availability, it sold over 1.5 million. There were nine models produced with the BBC brand, but the term 'BBC Micro' usually refers to the first six models. Now be honest, how many of you knew that?

I only ever saw our literacy project as being a starting point for people. It was to be on safe ground, where people could make a start on the rudiments of learning; gain confidence from their increase in knowledge, and move on to more established, and better funded educational establishments. We're not talking about huge numbers going through our programme, but pre-set targets were reached, and for me, there was great delight in seeing someone develop their literacy abilities.

We'd turned the room behind our social enterprise cafe into a gym for local youths, and the literacy worker spent time there, working with youths; building up relationships and trust, and getting some of them into the literacy programme. It was another lesson to use everything at your disposal to achieve your stated goals.

A service that we provided on another level was the Meals on Wheels service. This was mostly to the New Lodge estate, for elderly, lonely or disabled residents. This was not without occasional excitement.
Before commenting on that, let me give you a bit of history. The first home delivery of a meal on wheels following World War 11 was made by the Women's Volunteer Service (WVS) in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire in 1947. Many early services used old prams to transport the meals, using straw bales, and even old felt hats, to keep the meals warm while being delivered. There's a bit of social history for you. Most local authorities now have moved away from freshly cooked food delivery, and towards the supply of frozen pre-cooked reheatable meals.
At the time I'm describing it was freshly cooked meals that were delivered. We didn't cook the meals ourselves; we delivered them. You have to understand the fear that many people had of going into some areas in the city, and as we were already going in to the New Lodge, it was arranged that Social Services would deliver the meals in thermos containers, which we would then deliver into the estate, if memory serves me right, on three days a week.
I would never ask my staff to do anything that I was not prepared to do myself, so I took on the duty of delivering 12 - 15 meals a day. Fortunately we had a mini-bus, so I didn't have to use my own car. I met some wonderful people, and had some memorable experiences, all through delivering free meals to the elderly, lonely and disabled. Let me set the scene for you.
On the lower Antrim Road, opposite the New Lodge Road, and next door to our base was an army lookout post. The New Lodge estate had very few access points by road, and the New Lodge Road was the main road in and out. Throughout my time there I was questioned about where I was from because of my lack of a Belfast accent. You need to be aware how sensitive the paramilitaries were about people infiltrating their areas. I always responded that I was Welsh, except when the Welsh Parachute Regiment was in Ulster and occupying the army post. The Paras had a terrible reputation among the Nationalist population, and whenever they were in town, I was English. You learnt very quickly to adapt in Belfast.
Meals were delivered to people either living in terraced houses at the top of the estate, or to those living in the tower blocks at the bottom end. I did not like the tower blocks very much. They were often vandalised, with lifts out of operation, and carrying a meal to the tenth floor played havoc with my fitness levels, as well as my schedule. Even when the lifts were working, graffiti and urine smell was everywhere. The flats that I delivered to couldn't have been more opposite. They were generally immaculate, and the residents were most welcoming; each one would offer tea and tray bakes, which were declined because I would never complete my round. I did go back to some though at a later stage to help with some problem or other, and to this day there is nothing quite like a plate of Ulster tray bakes.
The terraced houses were much easier to deal with, and as with the flats, they were generally immaculate inside and out. In another Blog I'll talk about housing conditions and our programme for decoration, but for now the premises were a delight to visit. I remember delivering a meal to one lady who was in fits of tears. She'd lived in the New Lodge all her life, and she was being asked to move. I wondered where on earth they were moving her to, that brought her to such despair. She lived at the top of the New Lodge Road and was being asked to move to the bottom end of the estate. What would she do without her neighbours and friends? She was moving no more than 500 yards away, but it might as well have been Derry. I learnt something that day about how important territory is; it may be nothing to us, but to others it is everything.

Delivering meals was supposed to be so easy, but I was not prepared for the action of one week, when I felt like someone in on the start of the American Postal Service, where the post must get through. On this occasion, instead of post, it was the meals must get through. I sometimes wonder about my state of mind.

During one summer week, the New Lodge Road had been barricaded by the Paramilitaries, and there was no other way in. This came to my attention when I turned the mini-bus into the New Lodge from the Antrim Road, and was confronted by a group of rather fierce looking men, standing behind a barricade, looking as if they were trying to goad the troops in the army lookout post. Suddenly stopping the bus must have looked suspicious to the protesters and the army, but thankfully the organisations name was on the side of the bus (of course it could have been nicked - I hadn't thought of that). What to do now? The meals must get through. What would John Wayne do? Who cares, he's 6' 4" and can look menacing. I'm 5' 7" and hardly imposing. All of these thoughts are occurring you understand, in a few seconds - I made my decision.

I pulled the bus over and asked to speak to the man in charge. I spoke to someone (I doubt he was the leader), and explained who I was and what I was doing. I remember talking about serving their community; of the fact that elderly and disabled residents were waiting for possibly the only meal they would be getting that day. God I was good. I thought about saying that perhaps one of the people was their Grandma or Granda, but that would be pushing the emotional lever a bit too far. Anyway, ten minutes later the barrier was parted enough for me to get the bus through (who knows what the army were thinking as they were watching all of this - would I get a visit from them later on?). Though I had the distinct feeling that I was followed to make sure that I was who I said I was, the deliveries went smoothly. The people who I delivered to were very sweet, for having heard about the barricades, didn't think that they would be getting meals that day, and how did I manage it? I thought of John Wayne again (worrying?), "A man's got to do what a man's got to do". But of course I didn't say that, I just thought something like it. I got out of the estate the same way, and with as much confidence as I could muster, I said that I'd be back at the same time on Wednesday and Friday. Getting back to the office, I was knackered with the tension. This was not bravery, and looking back on it, is was quite stupid, and could have gone horribly wrong, but hey ho, you make decisions at the time and have to live with the consequences of those decisions.

What would happen on Wednesday and Friday? Something remarkable. I pulled up; they checked who I was, and allowed me through with a wave. Human beings just never cease to amaze me.

As they say at the end of some TV programmes, "To be continued".

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