My mad four minutes nearly ended the ceasefire

In August 2009 I was asked to do a show at the Andersonstown Sports Centre, as part of the West Belfast Festival, an annual event that first took place twenty years earlier as a cultural wing of the Irish nationalist movement. Andersonstown is the most unyielding of the nationalist areas, at the far end of the Falls Road, and back then an evening of culture was almost certain to end with a room full of people standing, with moist eyes and glasses aloft as they sang along to a ballad that went something like

“Twas in the year of eleven-seventy three that brave ol’ Tomas ‘O’Hara,
Was shot with an arrow fired from the men sent o’er by Henry the Second,
And the spot where Tomas lay slain,
They still call today,
The Tomas O’Hara car accessory shop.”

But since the ceasefire the Festival has become an event involving glossy pamphlets and literary figures, and tickets booked through agencies and chicken tikka wraps in the dressing room. And to emphasise the point, the patron of the festival is Danny Morrison, a leading member of Sinn Fein, believed by many to have once held a senior position in the IRA. At one level you have to assume this means he gets his way, and if there’s an argument on the committee it ends with Danny lowering his voice and saying quietly “I say we put on ‘Taming of the Shrew’,” and the decision is agreed.

I stayed with a Protestant friend in East Belfast, someone with no allegiance to Unionism whatsoever, who told me she’d never been to Andersonstown, and wasn’t sure of the way, pointing vaguely and saying “I think it’s over there somewhere” as if she was guessing the direction to Libya.

So I booked a taxi and the driver said “Are you sure you want Andersonstown?” with such astonishment I wondered if I’d said ‘Atlantis’ by mistake. And then an ‘Alright, if you say so’ look, as if I’d said “Take me to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland please.”

The Andersonstown sports centre, it turned out, hadn’t been designed with comedy shows in mind, and was one of the most unsuitable venues possible, somewhere behind a bottling plant and a hospital’s stroke unit. The sound bounces and echoes across the volleyball courts like the tannoy announcements in a supermarket, and there’s a constant chatter of people squeezing past tables to queue at the makeshift bar. On this night the queue for drinks consistently hovered at around a hundred people, and groups sat round tables getting drunk and loud and drunker and louder as the first three acts went on and the time I was due on got later and later. Eventually the room was awash with a tsunami of chatter that was so slurred, by the time most words had ended the beginning of the word had already bounced back off the wall to where it started.

As the compere began to introduce me, three hours after most people had arrived, around two hundred people sat in the middle, looking as if they were waiting for me to start, while the other eight hundred shouted ‘Hey Kieran, they’ve run out o’ fucken’ Grolsch’ across the tables, threw peanuts at each other, and shrieked with laughter as they and fell over, like in a Hollywood depiction of eighteenth century sailors on a night in a tavern.

So I went on stage and surveyed this splendid testimony to disorder, aware that I might as well try to do a show to a flock of geese, and a few of them shouted “Fuck off you fucking Brit.” I battled, pointlessly, for maybe three or four interminable minutes, while a core of supporters in the middle yelled at the rest to keep quiet and the rest made it clear they wouldn’t and probably couldn’t. Maybe, I pondered, the two groups would start fighting, it would spill out onto the street, the troops would be called back and this comedy show would result in the breakdown of the ceasefire, and for the next hundred years rival factions would fire at each other and paint murals of me sloping off the stage.

“I used to come here when the war was raging,” I said, “And you were always friendly then. I think I preferred you how you were.”

And then I went backstage to collect my things and leave, and as I left the dressing room was greeted by someone I vaguely recognised. “Mark,” he said with a ripe Belfast baritone, “I’m Danny Morrison, trustee of the festival, and I can’t apologise enough for what went on tonight.”

“It’s fine, Danny,” I said.

“It’s not fine,” he argued, adding “Mark, I’d like to speak to you about what happened there. Will you come into this room with me for just five minutes.”

And it was so hard not to smile, at the thought of whether in the past, there were people Danny had made a similar request to, who might have been slightly nervous about what could happen when they got in that room.

So we went in the room, and Danny said he was disgusted by the behaviour of the audience, who had no discipline and were “racist, there’s no other word for it – racist against you for being British.”

“Maybe a few of them were,” I said, “But mostly they were just drunk.” But secretly I thought “Of all the people asked to follow Danny Morrison into a room, I bet this is the only time the reason’s been to receive an apology for the Irish being anti-British.”

Politely, wth great charm, Danny offered to organise a taxi to take me back, and to accompany me until it came, so I didn’t face any more revelrie from the crowd who were now stumbling outside.

In a way the frustrations of the evening were signs of how positive the change in Belfast has been. Because it was just a show that went haywire, no different to how it might have happened anywhere, for the familiar reason that a community was encouraged to come to an event and get drunk.

“Where are you going?” said the taxi driver, incredulous that anyone from Andersonstown could possibly suggest the journey to the Newtownards Road in Protestant East Belfast. And he puffed and said “Jesus” a few times and tried to figure out which way was East.

But eventually I got in, and relayed the events of the night to my host, who just said “Oh dear, that’s a bad night when the safest option is to stand alone in a car park with a murderer.”

A bit late

I’m not finding it easy to keep up. You’re supposed to write things on your website every few days, explaining your thoughts on whether Ryan Giggs’ becoming Sports Personality of the Year will help Labour recover in the polls, or why kettles don’t last so long these days. And you’re supposed to twitter every few minutes, with messages like “I’ve just seen a car”, or “I might have a raspberry later”, but I’ve managed to go six months without writing anything on here, and every day of that time I’ve thought ‘I must put something on my website today’, and then failed.

So I’m going to start with last summer, and try to catch up, though I’ll probably fail again, in which case I’ll be six months behind forever, like the very early days of Pathe news. Or I’ll fall further behind until I’m commenting on the prospects for a Prime Minister that’s now dead, or how I’m excited by a radical new band, the lead singer of which is now General Secretary of NATO.

So – to start with I had a week in the utterly splendid city of San Francisco; a place that illustrates more than any other that America is the best of worlds, the worst of worlds. On the morning of Independence Day I had breakfast with my son and daughter in a diner, with at least a thousand glittery balloons and Gene Vincent rattling from a jukebox, and the rushed diffident waitress held her notepad while looking away from us and asked if we wanted our eggs sunny side up and everything came with pancakes and she called out “Hey, extra hash browns for table nine”, and I thought ‘This country is marvellous, you’d need a heart of stone not to forgive them for Vietnam and Hiroshima’.

Because whatever else the place is so enthusiastic. Even when they’re bored they’re bored enthusiastically. A taxi driver, hearing my daughter ask where the famous hills were, said “You want hills – I’ll show you hills,” and sped up and down the ridiculous terrain, on a free ride, as if it was his personal roller coaster that he’d just finished building and he couldn’t wait to show it off. The tramps are enthusiastic, eager to relate how they’re going to get their ass together if only you give them the dollar they need to get going. A huge bus driver, whose stomach squeezed and moulded itself around his steering wheel let us travel free, saying “I don’t charge tourists.”

Anyone uninitiated would think “This country just can’t help but be overwhelmingly helpful to foreigners. I bet this place would never harm anything abroad.”

The celebrated Haight Ashbury lives up charmingly to its stereotype, its shops full of bongs and exotic pipes and contraptions designed to puff hash into five separate orifices at once, and now there’s a board game called ‘Weed’, in which the idea is to go round getting as wrecked as possible. Presumably if someone gets a card saying ‘Miss a turn’ they head off into a trance, take no further part and they’re the winner.

At one end of this street is the glorious Amoeba Record Store, that is literally the size and layout of a large supermarket. Except the signs hanging above the aisles say ‘Funk’ or ‘Middle-Eastern hip-hop’ instead of ‘Beans’ and ‘Ethnic sauces’. You get a basket as you go in, as if you’re getting your groceries, and you need someone with you to say “STOP – you must STOP now”, or you’d pick up more and more basket and then book a 35 hundredweight van. As it is I came away with about fifteen records, which, compared to all that was in there seemed pathetic, the equivalent of going to the Souk in Marrakech to buy a packet of Polos.

And we cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge, and went to the baseball where my daughter spent the game on a giant coke bottle that’s a slide, an innovation I suspect is some years from being installed at Selhurst Park. But the event I was there to speak at was a weekend put together by the International Socialist Organisation, and was itself wonderfully infectiously enthusiastic. It was held at a Mexican women’s centre, in the poor and Mexican part of the city called The Mission, and as we arrived around one hundred Mexican women stood outside waving placards and yelling slogans demanding something or other. “How brilliant”, I said to my son, “There’s a protest already.”

“Yeah but what you don’t know Dad”, he said, “Is they’re yelling ‘We don’t want that Mark Steel speaking in our building’.” About nine hundred people came to this event over the weekend, a figure which always makes me feel two thoughts quickly in succession – 1) Blimey, that’s impressive for a socialist event in California – 2) Hmm, it still leaves quite a bit of California to win over though.

But there was a joy to the event that seemed to leave everyone who went with a sense of realistic optimism. Much of this is due to the direction the country has turned in. Five years ago it felt the place was under the eternal relentless rule of Bush and his co-signatories to plans such as the Outline for Universal Totality of Subservience or whatever. So Obama’s election has created a sense that change is possible.

But also there’s something about the left in America that seems more inviting than the British left. Maybe this is because they seem, and this is a most peculiar phrase to say about any sort of Americans – more humble. For example I went to one talk about how to create an opposition to a media dominated by rabid outlets such as Fox News. And there were people who ran independent radio stations, and a student who’d been to Palestine to film people in Gaza, and someone who’d gone to live in a homeless camp and written their experience as a blog, and the whole thing seemed so disconcertingly positive. Unlike when events are put on by the British left, no one got up to castigate anyone else for taking the wrong line or felt the need to gently correct anyone, or say ‘While you were under fire in Ramallah you should have made more effort to argue a socialist perspective’.

There was a sense of everyone pulling together to somehow construct a coherent opposition, the room full of people exchanging e-mail addresses and arranging activities, and it was an unrecognisably warm sensation compared to the embitterment that flows through so much of the British left. Or maybe the Americans just can’t help being sentimental. So on Independence Day, which happens to also be my birthday, I was about to begin my talk on Tom Paine, the corset maker from East Anglia who went to America and inspired the war of independence. But the person introducing me said there was a quick announcement before I began, which I assumed would be about fire exits or a set of lost keys or something. But instead my daughter emerged from the back of the room holding a cake, and made the announcement which went “Today’s my Daddy’s birthday.” And then they all sang Happy Birthday. And then I had to do my talk. The cruel Californian bastards.