I ducked my head as we walked through the grilled security cage on the front entrance of the pub. Now a tourist attraction, the cage was erected to vet punters after a shooting there in the 80’s. It was my round and she wanted porter.
Her Belfast accent was soft – more Eamonn Holmes than Gerry Adams. An artist, she worked in the same studios as me, just around the corner. We sat down at a table under a signed photograph of Diego Maradona scoring his Hand of God goal against England in the ’86 World Cup. Beside us a group of fellas wearing Celtic jerseys tried to perfect the party-trick of catching flipped beermats.
As we drank our stout Sarah told me she was Catholic, but her twin-sister was Protestant. Her parents came from opposite sides of the fence – during the height of the Troubles. But because of her mixed upbringing, she said she never experienced much sectarianism. Even during the Troubles, it wasn’t part of her environment as a child.
Therefore she thought everything from your political opinions to the way you walked and talked, was down to nurture – and not nature. She reckoned she was the perfect case in point – Catholic, but with a Protestant twin and mixed parentage.
Quite a complicated identity, in a city where they prefer straight answers. A city obsessed with identity. You think you’re immune at first, but Belfast has this way of making you aware of who you are. Maybe it’s just this city confronts you with scenarios alien to the cosy Vintage Week world of Midlands Ireland. Or anywhere else for that matter…
So while it’s impossible to be oblivious, the key is to not get knocked over by that initial wobbling dart of identity. It’s like meditation – allow the thoughts to enter your mind, but make sure they leave again fairly quickly - preferably before you join a paramilitary organisation. It’s important to keep yourself balanced. Centred.
Grounded. The pints went dry and it was her round. Left momentarily alone under The Hand of God, one of the beermat-flipping fellas leaned over and asked me where I was from. The binary switch flicked on his face once he heard my accent and realised I was ‘Mexican’ – from south of the border – and therefore probably a Catholic.
Feeling suddenly safe, he launched into a tirade about Peelers, Prods and getting arrested for public order offences. His identity was bursting out of him like a child who’d grown out of his school uniform. He got even more excited when he started talking about 90′s Britpop. Oasis in particular.
I told him I liked Oasis too, but I preferred Blur. The casual, friendly tone of the conversation dropped through the floor and he squinted at me with the head on him like a bulldog that’d just licked piss off a nettle.
Completely insulted, he could barely get the words up his neck as he announced with great passion his hatred for all things Blur. When I enquired as to the reason for this venom, he looked at me like I was properly thick. Then he explained the reason he hated Blur was because he loved Oasis.
I was stunned by his logic as Sarah arrived back with more porter. Here was a man so riddled by polarized thought it had metastasisted through his whole system. A Stage Four siege-mentality, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a black and a white – applied to every single aspect of his life, trickling all the way down to his consumption of popular culture. Your enemy’s enemy is your friend – like Diego Maradona on the wall up above us, scoring with his hand against the English.
Once he recovered from my Blur slur, the man in the Celtic jersey explained you could tell the difference between Protestants and Catholics by the way they drive their cars. He reckoned Protestants are much more careful about the rules – they do everything properly. Catholics, he said, are all over the place – bending the rules left, right and centre – parking cars on curbs, reversing around corners with no indicators on. An altogether more freestyle kind of driving.
I wondered would Sarah and her twin-sister drive differently to each other, as a result of their sectarian divide? Unfortunately upon enquiry, neither her nor her twin can drive, so his theory remains yet unproven.
As we said goodbye to The Hand of God and walked out through the security cage and back towards the studios, I wondered whether it was strange to have such fundamentally different people come from this same small city? And whether your mentality – not just to Oasis and Blur, Protestant and Catholic – but to life in general, truly depends on nurture, and not nature?
On the one hand you’ve Sarah – far more Eamonn Holmes than Gerry Adams – and on the other hand the beer-mat flipping Celtic jersey, his whole thought-process so polarised he can barely talk about music without taking offence.
Yet they come from barely a mile apart. But then I’ve found not much in this city can be applied to other cities. And anyway, it’s better not to ask too many questions – especially when you’re a ‘Mexican’…