Header Ads

Breaking News

Inventory by Darran Anderson review – a childhood in Derry | Books


Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s largest cities, are separated by the Glenshane Pass, a mountain road devoid of human habitation other than the self-described highest pub in Ireland. But for Darran Anderson, life growing up in a working-class Catholic area of Derry in the early 1980s was not very different from the childhood I experienced in a working class Protestant area of Belfast a few years earlier. True, the graffiti he saw – IRA, INLA – invoked different saviours from the graffiti I saw – UVF, UDA – but both sets of artists were equally committed to the uncovering of “touts” (police informers).

For Anderson, a writer on architecture whose last book Imaginary Cities was a compendium of real and invented urban space, Derry felt isolating, and his fascination with the “impossibly enigmatic” names of east European football teams and the territories of the shipping forecast meant the flatness of Fivemiletown and Strabane wouldn’t hold him long.

Inventory tells how he grew up in Derry and grew away from it, moving first to Belfast, where walking in places unwelcoming to Catholics made him realise that the city “put the psycho in psychogeography”, and then out of the North altogether. It’s a pilgrim’s progress for a sensitive young man in a place unsuited to such a temperament, told in a scattered way in short chapters, each themed – hence the title – by a childhood object: floppy disk, cassette, toy soldier. This iconographic form is apt to describe a place where symbols such as flags hold such sway, and gives a loose structure in keeping with Northern Ireland’s essentially provisional status.

The memoir of an “ordinary person” must combine universality and idiosyncrasy to succeed, and Anderson’s childhood in Derry sounds familiar: he played the same street games that I did on the other side of the country. But jumpers-for-goalposts nostalgia is avoided as his upbringing diverged from the traditional working-class picture: his parents were hippies, had a Japanese-themed room in their house, and generally failed to conform at a time “when having long hair was an invitation to get your head kicked in”. After all – a good joke, this, on the Ulster strain of Christianity – “these were decent, God-fearing Catholics, and the last thing a Catholic would respect is someone with a beard and long hair”.

His parents also fed Anderson’s interest in elsewhere (“my father was always distant … like he was living somewhere else, in his mind”), though Inventory is a reminder of how much is going on under our noses if we care to think. It helps to live in interesting times: Anderson grew up during the height of the Troubles (an elastic term, admittedly) and turned 18 in 1998, the year the Good Friday agreement was signed. Before that he lived under the “Tolkien-esque” watchtowers of the British army, and in the mono-ethnic North the first black person he saw was an English soldier patrolling the streets.

He writes of the death by a thousand cuts experienced by Catholic communities, even if he stayed “carefully” on the periphery of any violence, and of the fragility of forgetting in a place where a sectarian battle 330 years ago is still celebrated annually. Anderson observes that time has a special status here: it’s the “thin ice” that acts as a barrier but fails to protect. Living in a traumatised homeland exerts a force on those growing up: Northern Ireland to this day has a suicide epidemic – double the rate in England – that Anderson describes as “drowning on dry land”. It may have moved on from the Troubles, but not all its people can.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a book about Anderson’s family as well as his city. And although the family material holds promise – one grandfather was an army deserter, the other was a smuggler – he struggles to enliven these stories, going a bit Who Do You Think You Are? with pages filled contemplating old photographs or fiddling with microfiche. Here, in the absence of the insights he can draw from his own life, he resorts to fuzzy language (“liminal” is a favourite word) and don’t-look-too-closely aphorisms (“time is the spreading of ink on a page wet with rain”). Also frustrating is Anderson’s refusal to give the reader the satisfaction of narrative flow. At different points we learn that his grandmother drowned and his father served jail time for terrorist offences, but each time the focus switches back to reveries and reflections and the pull of the story is squandered, to be picked up only briefly later in the book with the air of an afterthought.

Whether this is a comment on the chaos of memory, or a reluctance to provide anything so basic as pageturning pleasure, it’s disappointing, particularly given Anderson’s understanding of how stories and histories work. The idea that we are sitting on top of the historical past is misconceived, he writes, as one who lived alongside enough of it. “We might equally say that we’re actually beneath the great staggering scrap-pile of history, and we’re scrambling to get out.”

Inventory is published by Chatto (RRP £16.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

Source link

No comments