Growing up in Derry: ‘The Troubles was like a fog that hung over everything’

Darran Anderson paints an unconventional portrait of the city in his new book, Inventory

Darran Anderson left Derry two decades ago: ‘A lot of the buildings are the same but I’ve changed and it’s changed.’

“I don’t see myself as an experimental writer,” says Darran Anderson. “I think we’re almost pre-programmed now, because of Hollywood stuff, to create narrative arcs, the three or five-act structure etc. Life doesn’t work like that.”

His new memoir Inventory, subtitled “a river, a city, a family”, is certainly unconventional. A memoir of his childhood in Derry and the people, places and objects that informed it, Inventory eschews traditional chapter structure, arranged instead through the catalogue of the title; dozens of micro-chapters, headed with simple titles relating to household objects – “Salt”, “Shovel”, “Pocket Mirror” “Lighthouse bulb” – which slowly tell a life story through a non-linear patchwork of short essays, some only half a page long.

“I’d been reading Gaston Bachelard’s book, The Poetics Of Space,” he says when I ask where the idea for this formulation came from. “A lot of that book is about the rooms of childhood and how they affect our hopes and dreams and memories. They stay with you for your whole life. So, I thought, I’ll fill the book up with rooms and go back and reconstruct them in my mind.”

But even that, he found, wasn’t quite enough.


“I chanced upon this Georges Perec quote from one of his essays, about making an inventory.”

Darran Anderson: ‘The Troubles was like a fog that hung over everything... I wanted to get that sense that life carried on.’ Photograph: Liz Seabrook

The quote – “Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare. Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag, ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out” – serves as one of the book’s epigraphs.

“I became obsessed with this idea of those objects,” he says. “Walter Benjamin talks about how objects lose their aura when they’re factory made. I see this idea quoted a lot and I really disagree. For me, objects, even if they’re mass produced, accumulate an aura from the passage of time, the context which might be given to them by some person in their time of life. We were surrounded growing up by junk my dad had collected, almost obsessively. But each object had an intrinsic value which only people within the family would know. From that I got the idea to let these objects guide the story. The objects are junk, at the same time as being deep and meaningful.”

Moving back and forth in chronology, Anderson’s catalogue of unassuming junk traces his life, and that of his parents and grandparents, with intimate portraits of their homes, communities, and the wider context of the Troubles which so often intruded within them. We hear about his father’s youthful imprisonment for terror offences, and his having seen men, boys even, killed by soldiers on the streets near his home. There are stirring passages going further back, to the events that defined the lives, and deaths, of his grandparents. Nowhere are these more strikingly captured than in the chapter that opens with the following two sentences: “Everyone knows where they were when Kennedy was shot. My grandfather was drowning.”

The cumulative effect is a vivid tableau of place and time, even if those places, and their times, move in and out of focus, from one section to the next. In preparing for this interview, I went through the usual rigmarole of tracking back and forth from chapter to chapter to pick out quotes or moments I wanted to highlight when we spoke. I remark how odd it was to move through the book out of sequence and find it just as cohesive as I did in linear order.

“I even wrote it that way,” he says, approvingly. “And I really love BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which you can reassemble in any order.” But the format is also, he insists, a truer reflection of how these events are recorded in one’s mind.

“When writing the book, there were sequences in which I had memories, or long detailed accounts from other people. But other types of memory are more splintered, fragmented. The artifice, if there is one, would be in telling the story in too neat an unfolding narrative, because life doesn’t work like that. A lot of memory is these little vignettes, like those you get in cinema. Werner Herzog’s works have these weird short sequences that don’t really make sense in the full scope of the wider film. He talks about the difference between ‘accountant’s truth’ – that which is known, and plain and ruthlessly factual – and what he calls ‘ecstatic truth’, that deeper, more poetic, essence of things. That seeped into my writing.”

Although the book tracks his own life story, Anderson was wary of making it too much like the existing templates for biographies, still less the Irish variant.

“There’s this ‘misery memoir’ thing in Irish literature I didn’t want to go near. I thought, is there a sideways way about entering this? I certainly didn’t want to write something that was ‘coming of age’ book, although it probably is one of those books. The thing I loved about Portrait Of An Artist, is that Stephen Daedalus, even though he’s become this young man who’s gone through this narrative arc and developed as a person, he’s also a bit of an arse. And Joyce acknowledges that, as if to say; this isn’t the end of the story, there are no happy ever afters.”

Darran Anderson as a child in front of the now demolished Rossville Flats in Derry

Anderson’s own sense of identity is similarly open-ended. Although his book charts a series of concrete demarcations – “Irish, nationalist, Catholic, working class” – he is wary of professing any of these himself, even internally.

“I can never quite understand people who have very solid identities, because I don’t really know from one day to the next where I belong. I think it’s good for writers because it enables them to be better witnesses. You write because you don’t fit in. If you did, you’d be doing much more productive things than sitting on your own writing books.”

All the guys are dressed up in their Sunday best... because, as they were rioting, they were being watched by all the neighbourhood girls and they were hoping to show off.

Though the book covers his experiences of the Troubles, it rarely does so in florid detail, more often in snatched, incidental moments, which prove all the more horrifying for their lack of emphasis. They can also be perversely comic, as when he mentions the iconic photographs taken during the Battle of the Bogside, and is struck not by the violence on display, but the fancy clothes the young men were wearing.

“All the guys are dressed up in their Sunday best,” he recalls, “because, as they were rioting, they were being watched by all the neighbourhood girls and they were hoping to show off. I wanted to get this across in Inventory – while this is going on here or anywhere, in conflict zones all over the world, people’s lives are still unfolding; they’re falling in love, getting their first jobs, going through every facet of human existence and that carries on through whatever troubles you have.”

“The Troubles was like a fog that hung over everything,” he says, “you were cocooned within the family environment and little glimpses of things would come in, someone being shot or a bomb scare or getting hassled by the army, but these felt like intrusions; the fog seeping into the room for a little while. I wanted to get that sense that life carried on, and most people kept their heads down and tried and avoid getting sucked into things. Derry is a city I love from a safe distance, because I still have a lot of pride in the people and what they got through.”

As luck would have it, Anderson is speaking to me from Derry, having returned back across that safe distance to visit the city he left two decades ago. How does it feel when he returns now?

“A lot of the buildings are the same but I’ve changed and it’s changed. One of the sad things is bringing friends back who’ve never been here before, I can see through their eyes a little bit. And you see there’s an incredible amount of poverty and a huge suicide problem, which I’ve tried to touch on in the book. There’s a sense that, despite the best efforts of the people who live here, the city is being allowed to sink and I find that enraging and unnecessary. There’s no reason that a city this beautiful, that’s the gateway to Donegal which is such a fantastic place, should be allowed to disintegrate.”

“There’s a thing in the Odyssey about nostalgia,” he says. “I read somewhere that the Homeric origin of the word nostalgia is a yearning to go home, and you can’t go home because home isn’t just a place, it’s a time as well, and that time is your childhood. Maybe everyone has that feeling, that the house you lived in as a child is always the one you have in your mind. And the price you pay for getting out and seeing the world, meeting new people and experiencing great things, is that you lose that place forever.”

Inventory: A River, A City, A Family is published by Chatto & Windus