City fathers let the paramilitary sleeping dogs lie while swabbing out our dreams
Peace in the North is an uneasy stasis, not the real thing
“Teenage dreams so hard to beat.” The words from the Undertones’ joyous hymn to young love have been swabbed out by the overzealous authorities. Photograph: Pacemaker
Living in the North, you learn to value the small things that make you feel normal, the things that make you feel connected to a wider, more multi-dimensional world.
That’s why there was such an outcry when the Department for Social Development erased an east Belfast mural celebrating the 1978 Undertones song Teenage Kicks.
The song’s opening words, “teenage dreams so hard to beat”, had been spray-painted under a motorway flyover nine years ago, after the death of the DJ John Peel, who loved it so much it reduced him to tears every time he heard it (the words are now on his gravestone). But last week, the mural disappeared under a thick coat of paint, as part of a £300,000 public realm improvement scheme.
Dearth of gaiety
The Northern authorities still cling to the gimcrack idea of retail-led regeneration, a post-conflict strategy which now appears to mean pouring thousands of pounds into fake shop-fronts for derelict stores, as embarrassingly showcased during the recent G8 summit in Fermanagh.
But the spirit of municipal joylessness which led to the erasure of the Teenage Kicks mural has been around for a long time. The writer Brian Moore identified it accurately as a “dearth of gaiety . . . [A] surfeit of order”. Chaining up the swings on Sundays was the old version; these days, it manifests itself in absurdly restrictive licensing laws and a weird obsession with improperly deposited dog faeces.
Of course, Belfast – and the North in general – has always expressed its most deeply felt and lurid preoccupations through graffiti and murals.
It’s notorious for it. While graffiti elsewhere often has a playfully anarchic quality, in Northern Ireland it operates as a primitive form of advertising, or even just a barked directive.
When I was growing up, the mysterious slogan “Don’t march, MOBIZE!” appeared on a gable end in my home town, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to the mingled amusement and disquiet of residents. And it’s still the case that a stretch of wall never stays blank for long.
Even the slopes of Black Mountain, rising up behind the city, are regularly used as a giant noticeboard; most recently they bore the topical legend “G8 war criminals”, spelled out in white bed-sheets.
The reason the removal of the Teenage Kicks mural generated so much anger – a campaign is already under way for its reinstatement – is that it didn’t conform to type.