14 February 2010

Lost Years

This map is the product of the Farset Health Inequalities Conference in Belfast last year. It charts the north and east wards of Belfast. This is just a screenshot, see the original here. It is not static map but interactive. The user mouses over the wards to discover the average age of death in those areas.

Some disparities are especially striking. It seems a resident of Fortwilliam can expect to live a full fifteen years longer than a resident of Ardoyne. Michael McGimpsey, Northern Ireland’s minister for health, remarks; "It cannot be tolerated that your life expectancy and health status is determined by where you are born." Journalist Malachi O'Doherty goes further, suggesting that this divide should be regarded as a justice issue. In terms of all the years looped of Belfast lives the issue is as profound as sectarian violence ever was. Regarding the disparity between Fortwilliam and Ardoyne O'Doherty remarks; “You can imagine the sense of emergency that sort of statistic would warrant if it was the other way around. We’d be discussing whether to build high-rise flats in Ardoyne and shift the people of Fortwilliam into them so that they can enjoy that fresh mountain air.”

Hear more from O'Doherty on the subject, with visuals, here. If you have 13 minutes you can listen to him reading a fuller essay on the same topic here. This reading, which was given at the Farset Health Inequalities Conference itself, includes a brilliant reminiscence on growing up in a house full of cigarette smoke.

1 February 2010

On the Street with Lapsed Protestant

Many of the essays and articles collected in Glenn Patterson’s Lapsed Protestant have a bit of urban cartography about them. They are personal stories backgrounded by Belfast’s last two decades and played out in its divided neighbourhoods. In House he recalls seeking a place to live in 1994. Anyone who ever looked for somewhere to live in Belfast will understand Patterson’s topographical hyper-sensitivity. How’s North Belfast? The Ravenhill Road? Or the Cregagh? Too Catholic? Too Protestant? Streets, right next to each other, can differ widely. Metres can matter. Patterson talks us through his negotiation of this terrain and in Lapsed Protestant a kind of impressionist map begins to build up.

A map in words will be perhaps inevitably hazy-edged and blurred but that suits this writer. Patterson is interested in change and seeing the city in flux opened up a creative theme he was able to put in his fiction.

[ … ] Belfast was not - as it so often appeared – static, stalemated but was, like all cities, perpetually in process. It’s hard to overstate the librating effect of this thought on an imagination shaped in large part by the polarities of the Seventies. [From Accommodation and apartmentality]

A story of youthful romance, Love poetry, the RUC and me, brings us an interesting contrast to the usual polemic. The girl came from a wealthy family. The story was not love across the barricades but love across the class divide. However it was still bluntly reflected by the style of streets that were its setting. The girl lived on a street so exclusive it was closed to traffic. If a house went on sale the residents got together to vet prospective buyers. “They were not concerned about religion, but tone.”

Many of the writings collected in Lapsed Protestant bring us right up into the newly configured heart of Belfast. Today we are been given more and more toneless apartment blocks and those secular cathedrals, shopping centres. The polarities of the seventies may be eroding but care must now be taken they are not simply replaced by new divisions, between the mobile and the poor for example, that may be getting built around us in new brick.