Two men who had a lot of influence on the Northern Ireland I grew up in died last week. One was the taoiseach who first brought ceasefire talks with the IRA to the highest levels of government, beginning the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and a halt to three decades of slaughter. The other was a radio DJ who, through those years, provided a wry, human voice for those trying to live a normal life.
I don’t think it’s any insult to the memory of Albert Reynolds to say that for me, Gerry Anderson was by far the more important of the two.
Let me clarify that. One of my very earliest recurring memories is of travelling in the family car with one or both of my parents. The school my sister and I went to (and where my parents taught, and where my two brothers would later go) was several miles away from where we lived. So in the morning and the evening, we’d be driven there and back. Whenever that happened, and indeed whenever we were driven anywhere else, the radio was usually on, tuned to one of Northern Ireland’s local radio stations.
This was the 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more than a decade old and had become soul-grindingly mundane. I would be much older before I learned that being stopped in the middle of the night by soldiers in full camouflage, wielding automatic rifles; that cycling past police stations that looked more like fortresses; that listening to the news and hearing the tally of the latest bombings, shootings and burnings wasn’t something that everyone else in the western world had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
The radio shows, which mostly mixed music with phone-in segments, were a means of holding together the majority of the population who didn’t support the lunatics on either side and didn’t care for living in a militarised zone. They maintained the thread of normality, of entertainment, good humour and common experience that frayed every time another bullet was fired or car bomb exploded. You could listen to them on the way to Belfast, arrive and have to deal with a city centre that had been fortified, then return and listen to them on the way home, restoring some sense of balance and sanity to your world.
Gerry Anderson was my favourite and still embodies much of what I think of as the best of Northern Ireland. For me, his dry humour, the way he dealt with the myriad strangenesses of daily life in the North, and his insistence that all those things were, in their own way, more important than the blood and thunder of the lunatics, is quintessentially Northern Irish. Famously, he was the man who cut through the Gordian knot of the Derry/Londonderry debate by renaming the city Stroke City. A Northern Irish solution to a Northern Irish problem if ever there was one.
Twenty years ago, the IRA ceasefire began, marking yet another step in the peace process, which has now taken firm, if occasionally painful hold on Northern Ireland. As bad as the Troubles were, those of us who lived through them were, in a way, lucky. We had the space to hold on to normal lives in the midst of it all, with the help of Gerry Anderson and many others. It’s hard not to look at the Middle East today and the chaos swirling around Syria and Iraq and wonder just how many people there won’t have as much of a chance. How much of their way of life is being destroyed. I hope that when the sound of the guns and the bombs fades away, there might be the sound of a radio somewhere, and of a dry-witted host engaging with everyday concerns before reaching for another record.