Adverts proclaiming Belfast to be beautiful are missing the point of this complicated place, says Fionola Meredith
‘Beautiful’. It’s not the word that most people would immediately link with Belfast. If you took one of those word-association tests, a few other Bs might come to mind, like bleak, barbarous, or bombed. Or even Bigotsborough, as the writer James Douglas famously renamed his native city.
But ‘Beautiful’, with a big capital B, is the word currently emblazoned on billboards all around the city centre, alongside images of Belfast looking uncharacteristically glossy. One giant advertisement shows a night-shot of the Waterfront Hall, its lights shimmering in the Lagan. Another shows Titanic Belfast looking as exotic as an alien spacecraft, the Harland & Wolff cranes lit up dramatically in the background. A third advert features Queen’s University, the red-brick Lanyon building glowing proudly in the sunshine beneath a blue, blue sky.
Tourism bosses must be spending vast amounts of cash in telling us all how sexy, gorgeous and all-round fabulous our capital city is. They’re selling a fantasy version of the place, presumably reasoning that if they insist that Belfast is beautiful enough times, then eventually people will believe it. But who are they trying to convince, at such great expense?
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Belfast is in the usual apprehensive state of self-imposed semi-lockdown that routinely occurs in the summer. Flags, of both the Union and paramilitary varieties, flap ominously in the unseasonably chilly breeze. It’s strangely easy to get around – traffic is reduced to a light trickle – and there are lots of parking spaces, because so many citizens have escaped to warmer, saner, more enlightened places.
There are plenty of tourists, though. More than ever, according to official statistics. Apparently there were 1.5 million overnight trips in 2016 and hotels sold 991,000 rooms. Cruise liners, those vast white floating palaces, are arriving here in record numbers. You can often spot visitors on Sunday mornings, wandering around the deserted city centre, clutching their maps and wondering where they can get a cappuccino.
What on earth do they make of Belfast in July? Imagine their quite natural confusion and the questions they must be asking…
Why are the locals erecting gigantic flaming pyres with obscure, expletive-ridden signs on them about the city council and the BBC? Why is a lisping loyalist, who seems to be the self-appointed king of the bonfires, continually on the radio talking about the right to burn stuff? And how does setting fire to things in a council car park suddenly turn it into a “cultural expression area”?
Belfast is a weird, complicated, contested place, and the atmosphere in July – thick with toxic smoke from burning tyres – underscores that uncomfortable fact. It is pointless for tourism chiefs to try and promote it as an idyllic, shimmering destination, or even a capital city like any other, when it is so manifestly the opposite of that.
But neither am I arguing Belfast is a hopeless dump that should be avoided by anyone with a titter of wit. This is no hatchet-job on my native city.
No matter how many trendy coffee shops there are, with staff talking in mid-Atlantic accents and taking orders on iPads rather than notepads, no matter how many fine restaurants where you can nibble on courgette flowers or summer truffles (yum), or bars with numerous varieties of bespoke gin, Belfast will always be its cantankerous and cussed, colourful and contradictory self, where nothing is ever as it initially seems.
And that is why, despite everything, I love the awful place.
I know I’m not the only one. My son has spent the last four years doing an undergraduate degree in Dublin, but in September he’s coming home. Why? Well, Dublin is just too normal and civilised, he says. It’s true that living in Belfast can give you a taste for crazy.
If I was a visitor arriving here, this is the Belfast I’d want to discover. James Douglas may have called it Bigotsborough, but he also said it was a city with a soul.
“It has the hunger of romance in its heart, for it has lost its own past, and it is groping blindly after its own future,” Douglas wrote in 1907, in words that are no less true today. This is who we are: refugees from our hateful history, desperately trying to make sense of our place in the world.
So don’t style us as some bland imitation of Leeds or Newcastle or any other provincial city, with all of the strange cracks that make us unique papered over.
Stop pretending we’re normal! We’re not normal and we’re rarely beautiful, and that’s what makes this city so endlessly fascinating.