Sunday, October 14, 2012

Belfast 3 Southampton 5. The winner is Belfast

 “Fuckin’  ‘ell” were the first words I heard on my arrival in England at the start of summer. A hearty welcome to that green and pleasant land, it certainly was not. Moments before, I’d stepped down from the train on to the platform at Southampton Central and had begun wheeling my suitcase – with its bright red “HEAVY” warning tag – in the direction of the lift. A sudden bump caused me to turn around. The case had collided with a set of male toes, fully exposed in a pair of blue and white flip flops. My mumbled apology only brought forth a look of disgust, so I hastened onward to the exit and out into my new life in Southampton.
         It was an ugly beginning to what turned out to be a great summer.
         Initially I’d been hesitant about accepting the offer of work teaching at the university. The move, even if it was just temporary, meant leaving the comfort of my own home and the company of friends for three months. I was weary of airports and reluctant to undergo yet more upheaval in my life. In the course of less than a year I’d moved out from Belfast to Tarragona and from Spain back again to Ireland. In the end, it was circumstances - no work at home - that forced me to pack my suitcase and head for Southampton.
         Like many others who arrive at a new destination, I tend to fall into the trap of making constant comparisons between where I’ve arrived and where I’ve come from. On that first afternoon it rained incessantly (and it was to continue raining for a further two weeks); even the weather in Ireland was better. Belfast 1 - Southampton 0. My student room was cell-like in size and austerity, and the coffin-sized single bed there did not promise a decent night’s sleep. 2-0 As soon as I’d unpacked I set out in search of a supermarket; cabin fever would have to wait for another few days before I succumbed.
The grounds of the student residences are bordered by dense forest and the picnic tables on extensive lawns presided over by ancient yew and pine trees suggested that one could hope for better/dryer weather. On that first afternoon, what struck me was how unusually trusting the blackbirds were. They remained unconcerned by my approach; at most, they hopped a couple of paces and turned nonchalantly to watch as I sidestepped the puddles and strode on toward the bus stop. And so it was for the rest of the summer. Each time I passed within a couple of metres of a blackbird, I pondered on the difference between the somewhat skittish Irish blackbirds and their more chilled-out English cousins. I found no explanation but I thought it a good omen. 2-1.
Standing at the bus stop, I was astonished by the number of cyclists who squished by under the deluge. Keen hardly began to describe these cyclists; stoic I believe was more fitting. Judging by the number of cycle lanes, Southampton City Council was endeavouring to accommodate them. The entire route from the halls of residence to the city centre could be travelled on a bike in cycle lanes that ran adjacent to, and sometimes through, the New Forest. 2-2
         When the rain eventually called a truce and the barrage of water between me and my new surroundings withdrew, a few tentative conclusions I’d drawn in the first days were confirmed. English gardeners are, generally speaking, keener than their Irish counterparts. 2-3 The care bestowed upon many of the household gardens I saw throughout my summer in Hampshire, the attention to colour and symmetry was a tribute to their owners’ creativity and perhaps a reflection of the nature of their connection with the land. Indeed, a number of the gardens had a certain ambience that only a scrupulous choice of shrubbery and plants could evoke. The ones I loved best, and there were plenty of them, were the mature cottage-style gardens. So, why is it that, generally speaking, Irish gardens lag so far behind those in Hampshire? It could be that the climate is harsher here or possibly that, historically, the value of land in Ireland is measured in agricultural terms, as opposed to the aesthetics of pleasing the eye and the soul. In a country which has suffered the loss of around 40 per cent of its population to famine, this is a plausible explanation. It’s also plausible that widespread evictions from smallholdings in the decades and centuries preceding the famine of 1845-1849, weakened the population’s attachment to land that wasn’t theirs, and for the vast majority of Irish it wasn’t.
         An awareness of aesthetics may also have played a role in the absence of “orange faces” amongst younger women in Southampton. Fake tans, poorly applied fake tans, are endemic in the north of Ireland. 2-4 Having white skin is eschewed in favour of hues that range from tangerine to chocolate brown. Joints, namely elbows, knees and fingers become a grubby mess of streaks that is an even darker hue than the rest. Combined with copious quantities of makeup and bleached blonde hair, the overall effect is artificial at best and caricatured at worst. The orange face syndrome is, of course, mostly class-based and therefore more prevalent in working class areas where young women mimic celebrities whose privileged lifestyles will forever be denied them.
         It seemed to me that the English love the word “no” and they also like the preface “Do Not”. Signs prohibiting this and that are posted liberally throughout the city and surrounding countryside. On a number of occasions while walking through a remote part of Hampshire I suddenly come upon a warning forbidding me to do something it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do. Respect for the law and rule of law is much greater than in the north of Ireland. When I returned home briefly for one weekend in July I was struck by the prevalence of anti-state graffiti daubed on the walls throughout my neighbourhood. “F**K the RUC/PSNI“ (the police) and other such unambiguous messages made it abundantly clear how the rule of law is perceived in some parts of Ireland. 3-4
         Finally, there is no ambiguity at all about which city wins when I compare my journey to work in Belfast with that I took in Southampton. Daily, I walk a sullen treeless route to the university that crosses two warring neighbourhoods via the “no man’s land” of a motorway roundabout. In Southampton I followed a pathway through a forest of mature oak, pine, beech, sycamore and chestnut from the halls of residence to the campus where I taught. On the summer mornings when I started out early for work, birdsong and the occasional rustle of leaves stirred by the breeze were the only sounds accompanying me through the forest. Regardless of how many times I followed the path, it never lost its charm. 3-5.
         And yet when my contract at the university finished in mid September I left Southampton with few regrets. I was ready to return to Belfast. I’ve no plans to swap the comfortable familiarity I have with this city and the ways of its people for new terrain, no matter how enticing that terrain might be. It’s a cliché but for the time being at least, home is most definitely where the heart is and mine has fallen for a cold, damp, grey city in the north of Ireland. Warts and all.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure about your scoring system. English referees are notoriously bad!