A Barricade of Bunting

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Hidden in the dazzle, the early evening protestors and their bunting.

In the end, it was a simple matter of stepping over a thin line of bunting stretched across the road. And then, later, walking through a line of mostly youngish men, hooded and masked. No one commented, or even looked my way. Even so, I felt my stomach knotting.

Why? There was no violence there, early on a wet night in Belfast, or later. (Though things did get hairy elsewhere and the next day.) The flag protests that have rolled across Northern Ireland for the past few weeks have been amply covered in the media, but this was my first direct contact with them. In place of brick and bottle throwing defiance, there was a slightly sullen matter-of-factness about the whole affair. Civil disobedience already turned into habit.

I’m not going to go into the justifications for the protests, which have already been covered elsewhere, except to note that few commentators on either side of the divide have dared to come out in support of violence as a response to putting a flag in a drawer as opposed to on a pole for most of the year. Unfortunately, both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are in the habit of launching the sort of street protest that inevitably leads to stone-throwing and worse. For the young and the hopeless, it’s better than dealing with the everyday grind.

So if I wasn’t facing violence, what was it that caused my stomach to curl in on itself? Some of it, perhaps, was a reminder of what I’d left behind. I’ve been in Dublin for a long time, and even when I lived in Northern Ireland it was in a relatively peaceful corner, where the Troubles mostly came in the form of daily news reports. In the North, old grievances run deep, and fears run along with them. Fear of the Other and what they might do if unchecked.

So the protests were a response to the apparent nationalist victory at getting the Union Jack taken off Belfast City Hall most days of the year. An effort by the loyalist community to throw their weight around, to prove to the police, nationalists and anyone watching that they could do so if they wanted. Swaggering is one word. Intimidation is another.

And it was that intimidation that my stomach was responding to. I’m not a violent person, and my first response to conflict is usually to avoid it. But when gangs decide to block passage along the Ormeau Road, as others did elsewhere that night, avoidance is no longer an option. Meekness works instead, avoiding eye contact and just passing by, hoping that the self-appointed big dogs have bigger fish to fry.

And where was I going that night? To Ravenhill, where an Ulster rugby team that has garnered the support of both sides of the community slogged their way to another victory in the rain. Among the flags there were plenty of Northern Ireland and Ulster banners, the best of which featured the Red Hand grasping a pint of Guinness. But no Union Jacks and no tricolours. We should all be so lucky.

December 2012 Book Reviews

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Arranged in ascending order of whatever explanation you prefer.

This last collection of book reviews for 2012 is a little late. Not, surprisingly, for reasons of laziness, but rather because I, well, cheated. The last book mentioned below, God’s War was begun and mostly read in December, but I only finished it yesterday. Which means, by the mostly arbitrary rules this blog follows, it should go in the January pile of reviews. However, there isn’t going to be a January pile.

Not that I’m going to stopping writing the reviews: I enjoy them too much. Specifically, I enjoy the challenge of summing up my thoughts on a book in just three readable sentences without resorting to ridiculously long run-on constructions. (And yes, sometimes I have resorted thusly, but I try not to.) However, what with the demands of college, which are only going to increase in the months ahead, there aren’t likely to be enough reviews to make a monthly pace sustainable.

Which is a pity, as it’s been a very handy way to ensure that I post at least once every month.

Anyway, the reviews will return, in some form, whenever I build up enough of them. For now though, enjoy the last of the current batch and I’ll wander off to dream up some new, non-time-consuming theme to ensure regular posting.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien: In the run up to the movie, this was a must-read, and it was great to return to it, both for memories of reading it myself and of reading it to my little brother when he was in primary school. It’s not The Lord of the Rings by a long shot, but it remains very much a classic, this story of an unwilling everyman who finds that his unsuspected virtues are just what is needed on a quest to face down a dragon and recover a lost kingdom. Wonderful incidental touches punctuate an otherworldly story in a richly developed world, and one that takes little or no time to dive into and get yourself lost in.

Northlanders: The Icelandic Trilogy, Brian Wood et al.: Wood rounds off his “Viking” series with the story of an Icelandic settler family, from their earliest days on the island to the loss of independence at the hands of Norway. This is nation-building from the viewpoint of a family willing to do anything to build and hold what’s theirs, and it’s gritty and at times unpleasant stuff, as this is a series that has never shied away from the more squalid corners of Viking life. As a signoff for a series cancelled before its time, its suitably downbeat and defiant, and if the art is not going to suit every taste, the writing ably portrays lives as bleak and enduring as the landscape they inhabit with minimal strokes.

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman: This is a massive and exhaustive tome that examines all aspects of the crusading phenomenon over several centuries in an effort to create a coherent view of the world it sprang from and inflicted itself upon. Tyerman’s approach is to see the crusades not merely as a series of conflicts between the Christian and Muslim worlds, but rather as a way of life and a belief system that infected the European world for centuries. This approach sometimes leads him to jump back and forward in time to tie his points together, but it’s still a very readable account given the amount of detail it employs.