Prisoners of Memory

An original essay, written especially for Tinteán,  by Chris Arthur 

Approaching the coast of Antrim on the ferry from Scotland. Photograph with permission of Chris Arthur.

One of the ways I picture memory is to see it weaving a kind of continuous spider’s web that’s laid down on all the time we occupy. This invisible net allows most things to pass through it. But some are trapped, sometimes for years, sometimes only briefly. Memory’s web-net acts like a kind of border crossing. Each today must pass through it on its journey towards tomorrow and becoming another yesterday. These border crossings between our days are patrolled by the not-always-vigilant guards of remembering.  Their decisions about which moments to wave through, and which to detain, veer wildly between what’s reasonable and what seems utterly capricious.

It’s easy to understand why some things are arrested as they pass through memory’s web-net.  We remember the big events that touch us: births, marriages, deaths; the highs and lows of life; what gives us pain and pleasure.  But looking around the prisoners my memory holds, there are also those that seem to have been deprived of the freedom of forgetting on what appear to be the flimsiest grounds.  It’s hard to see why they’ve been detained by memory’s web-net when so much else has been allowed to pass through it freely.

My conversation with Graham, on a ferry between Scotland and Ireland forty years ago, belongs to this class of prisoner – something held for no obvious reason, its incarceration in memory seemingly an error; a miscarriage of the often inscrutable justice that rules what we remember and what we forget.  Graham and I were only slight acquaintances, not friends; our conversation might easily not have happened. What we talked about was ordinary enough.  There were surely no grounds for supposing that this was something that would get locked away in my mind for years.  Why did what he said become such a long-serving prisoner of memory?

*       *       *

            Like me, Graham was part of Northern Ireland’s reluctant diaspora.  In normal circumstances we’d almost certainly have remained there all our lives.  But normality was suspended for much of our growing up.  The bombings and shootings of “The Troubles” meant that ordinary life came to be riddled with rogue nerves, liable to jerk into spasms of violence without warning.  The situation made us – and hundreds like us – look “across the water,” to use a phrase common in Ulster parlance then.  The possibility of living in England, Scotland, or Wales began to exert an appeal.  In previous years, the typical progression from our Belfast school would have been to one of Northern Ireland’s universities: Queen’s in the capital, or the University of Ulster in Coleraine, followed by employment somewhere in the six counties. Instead, Graham and I were among those who applied to Scottish universities.  He went to Glasgow, I went to Edinburgh.

Still caught securely on memory’s web-net are my conflicted feelings about leaving the country of my birth – relief at getting away, excitement about new horizons, but also a sense of guilt at deserting my troubled homeland.  Would it not have been a more honourable course of action to have stayed, contributed somehow (how?) to curing its malady?  Though I didn’t remotely see myself in the terms she used, it still touched a nerve when an aunt lamented the fact that “all our best people are leaving.”  My intention, albeit vague, unstated, just assumed, was one day to go back.  But the usual imperatives of love, marriage, children, and employment soon put paid to that, as they did for so many others in my position.  The fact that our leaving wasn’t something we desired could be seen in the frequency with which we made visits home – even if, as the years accumulated, our sense of where home was became increasingly conflicted.  It was on one of our frequent journeys back to Northern Ireland that Graham and I fell into our shipboard conversation, fragments from which were to be remembered for so long.

The raw violence of The Troubles was undoubtedly a factor in our decision to study at universities across the water.  When I was at school in Belfast, I can remember helping to make safe the windows with a crisscrossing of clear adhesive tape – a precaution against glass shrapnel in the event of an explosion.  Sometimes, through these oddly mullioned classroom windows, we could see areas of the city burning in the aftermath of riots or incendiary-bomb attacks. Out of school, I’d been disconcertingly close on several occasions when bombs went off, had grown used to vehicle checkpoints, control zones – where no vehicle could be left unattended – body searches going into shops, the daily presence of heavily armed soldiers and police.  I’d felt threatened by the belligerence of men in paramilitary uniform sometimes openly flaunting their power on the streets.  I knew there were some areas of the city it would be suicidal to venture into.  On the road between our house and the school there was a popular pub where one evening gunmen murdered several customers, opening fire indiscriminately after bursting in.  One of the dead was a recent past pupil.

*       *       *

Yet, despite such things – unwelcome prisoners of memory whose long sentences it’s easy to understand – I doubt if the violence and threat of violence alone would have made us leave.  It’s amazing what you can get used to, accept as normal, just learn to live with.  I think what we really wanted to escape was the aggressive dualism that seemed endemic in Ulster society back then.  This supported a kind of invisible apartheid that provided the breeding ground for sectarian hatred and the violence it spawned.  There was a kind of grim-faced readiness to cast people as representatives of indigenous tribal groupings, rather than seeing them as individuals.  The dominant mindset was inflexible and unforgiving.  It swiftly parsed people according to a grammar of simplistic antagonism, putting them – on the basis of the smallest signs – into one group or the other: Protestant or Catholic; Loyalist or Nationalist; Irish or British.  Like Graham and me, many in our generation didn’t feel rooted exclusively in any of these categories.  Our senses of belonging and identity, of allegiance and loyalty, were more complicated – confused. We felt unrepresented by the crude dualism that denied the muddle of the middle ground.

Being between two warring camps is rarely comfortable, often dangerous.  Each tends to view a lack of unambiguous commitment as some kind of failing or transgression; a betrayal that warrants censure if not punishment.  It’s hard to explain to those who’ve not been pigeon-holed religiously, politically, ethnically simply on account of their name, their address, or the school they attended, how liberating it felt “across the water” where such instant discrimination by superficial externals didn’t happen.  There, the only pigeon-holing we encountered was the harmless one of being seen as students, because of our long hair and casual dress – though as the 1970s plunged Ulster into ever greater turmoil, negative associations came to be linked in many people’s minds with a Northern Ireland accent, so that sometimes when I spoke I could see hearers becoming wary.

*       *       *

  I didn’t know Graham well at school.  Probably if we’d stayed in Northern Ireland we’d never have spoken beyond the most minimal niceties of acknowledgement that courtesy demands on meeting someone you recognize.  But seeing a person from your home environment miles removed from it can create a kind of bond.  The first time I saw him on one of the Cairnryan-Larne ferries must have been a year or so after we left school.  Thereafter, we coincided every now and then on our regular journeys home. Graham, I soon discovered, went back more frequently than I did, often going across at weekends.

He was an only child.  His mother had died young, when he was only fourteen.  He and his father were close.  Both keen anglers, they spent a lot of time together fly-fishing for trout in the dozens of little lakes that dot the countryside around where they lived in County Down.  Loughinisland was their favourite haunt – there’s a large lake there beside the village, with an ancient ruined church and graveyard on its shores.  It’s a beautiful place – but like so many lovely places in Ulster, it’s come to have ugly connotations attached to its name.  Say “Loughinisland” now and what many Ulster minds remember isn’t the lake and its fishing but the terrorist murders of six men in the Heights Bar in 1994.

Sometimes when I saw Graham on the ferry we’d just exchange smiles and a few words.  Occasionally, we’d have a drink together.  The conversation from which fragments came so unexpectedly to be trapped in the amber of my memory happened on a winter crossing rough enough to keep everyone indoors.  We sat in adjoining seats in the forward lounge, reading our books and chatting intermittently as the vessel heaved and ploughed its way through the waves.  Almost all of what we said has passed through memory’s web-net into oblivion.  What was retained was something Graham told me about his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.  The progress of the disease had steadily whittled away his capabilities until it became impossible for him to live on his own.  Reluctantly, Graham had moved him into a nursing home.

Each time he came home to visit, Graham noticed some diminution, until – at the time we spoke – his father hadn’t recognized him for a year or more, nor could he remember anything they talked about between one visit and the next.  By then Graham was married, teaching in Glasgow, and with a young family to support, but he still made frequent visits back to Northern Ireland.  “I know he doesn’t know me,” Graham told me, “he can’t remember that I’ve been before.  He’s no idea who I am, or where he is.  But I hope that at some level he knows I’m there, knows he hasn’t been abandoned – that he derives some comfort from my presence just sitting beside him in his room.”

*       *       *

Graham’s story isn’t unusual. Our increased longevity makes such situations commonplace, though they’re no less sad for that. Why should what he told me about his father have made an impression deep enough to be remembered for forty years?  I’m reluctant to put it down to accident – just a random glitch in the web-net of remembering, a slip-up by one of the guards at memory’s border crossings between the days.  Though I accept that what gets imprisoned in memory has sometimes been apprehended for no discernible reason, I don’t think the fragments from my conversation with Graham belong to the kind of memory-detritus that’s simply due to error.

It’s hard to plot the weather of the psyche or unravel causes for the network of effects that spangle the mind with their intricate interrelationships, but I suspect the main reason my memory latched onto what Graham said about his father was because I was thirsting for an icon of decency to set beside – do something to counteract – the barbarous sectarianism that was so disfiguring life in Ulster.  Crossing between Edinburgh and Belfast at that time vividly underlined how different life was on the two sides of the North Channel, that narrow strip of sea that divides Scotland from Northern Ireland.  Security at the ports was high – searches, questions, a watchful armed presence – underscoring how, despite the close geographical proximity, travellers were moving from one world to another.  And having been away, coming back to my familiar haunts made aspects of them that I’d once been used to seem outlandish and threatening.  Sectarian graffiti, flags, burnt out buildings, soldiers on the streets, helicopters low overhead, the sound of gunfire – things once accepted as normal – became instead unnerving.  Graham’s repeated visits to his father had no hope even of acknowledgement, let alone reward, given the way his father’s memory was unravelling.  They represented action based on humane civility, love, dutiful responsibility, filial affection – something that stood at the opposite pole of compassion from those brutal activities that were daily claiming the headlines.

Belfast poet John Hewitt (another icon of decency) speaks for many in Northern Ireland’s unwanted diaspora when he distances himself from the “creed-crazed zealots” and “the ignorant crowd,” those “long-nurtured, never checked in ways of hate” who “have made our streets a byword of offence.”  Particularly on those occasions when – simply on account of my Ulster accent – I was looked at askance on the UK mainland as someone tainted by The Troubles – I sometimes felt like shouting out in protest the final line of Hewitt’s poem “An Ulsterman”: “My heritage is not their violence.”  My reaction to what Graham said about visiting his father was, I think, allied to that; the wish to claim a heritage characterized by the values evidenced in his behaviour, rather than by anything the zealots on either side were doing.

*       *       *

There’s something elemental in a ferry crossing, something that raises questions that are often pushed aside once we’re safely back on dry land.  It’s as if the experience of departure and arrival, of being exposed to the elements of sea and sky, of being in a kind of liminal state – a period of transition between one place and another – sounds a kind of tuning fork which makes us reflect on deeper matters than we customarily do.  The crossing between Larne and Cairnryan is one I’ve made many times, but despite its familiarity it always makes me take a few steps back from my routine perspectives and think about things in a different key.  Perhaps this is due in part to the ancientness of the route, the fact that humans have crossed here, at this narrowest point between Ireland and Scotland, for centuries – since humans first tenanted the land on either side.  As I make the same passage I often think of the vanished thousands who have made this journey before me, and of the countless others who will make it in the centuries to come. I wonder about their lives and loves, their fears and dreams, about what was and will be imprisoned in – and what escape – their web-nets of memory to create those patterns of retention and release, unique to every individual, that makes us who we are.

In particular, crossing at this point of ancient human passage always nudges me to think about those ancient recurring questions that must surely have arisen in some form in the minds of everyone who has looked out on this stretch of sea and sky: What is the nature of our existence? How should we treat one other? What meanings can we find for life, for death? What matters and what does not?

Some of the answers given by those fomenting Northern Ireland’s Troubles were truly grotesque.  Beneath the grim rhetoric of nationalist or loyalist dogma were those ready to shoot someone point blank in the head, or leave a bomb in a crowded city street, or execute innocent unarmed workmen by the roadside, or murder parents in front of their children.  Beside such extreme acts of violence, ordinary life was of course lived ordinarily, decently, by scores of citizens.  The vast majority of people wanted no truck with the killing.  I could have chosen any of them to represent a decent way to live, but – in part because of the way a ferry crossing sensitizes the mind – it was Graham’s voice and example that left a particular impression.

*       *       *

Does that explain it?  Can the impact of the Troubles, and the nature of a ferry crossing account for the way in which a few sentences from a forty-year-old conversation have become embedded in my memory?  Mulling the matter over I can’t decide if what Graham said possessed its own native gravity of significance, or if – in order to rationalize its otherwise unexplained detention in memory – I’ve come to invest it with a weight of meaning it can’t legitimately claim.  One thing is certain. The operation of memory’s web-net retains a considerable element of mystery no matter how closely we examine it. It’s worth remembering that. And, in the wider context of Irish history, where differences in memory can be so striking, we need to keep in mind that the way things pass through the border crossings remembrance erects between our days suggests that all of us are highly subjective and selective in the prisoners we take.

Chris Arthur was born in Belfast and grew up in Lisburn, County Antrim.  His most recent book of essays is Reading Life (2017), (reviewed in Tinteán in March ).  A new collection, Hummingbirds Between the Pages, is due out in July 2018. Further information about his writing can be found on his website.

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