In 1938, just after Chamberlain gave his ‘Peace for our time’ speech and handed over the good people of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, W.H. Auden wrote Musée des Beaux Arts. Alongside his other poems Spain, In Memory of W.B. Yeats and The Fall of Rome, it’s a work I keep coming back to. It seems inexhaustible and different every time I read it. It’s based on a painting from the 1560’s by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the self-explanatory Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. I’ve been fascinated by the perspective it takes, which like all great revelations seems so simple and obvious in hindsight. Life happens in the peripheries. The central narrative is, at best, a comforting illusion and, at worst, a deceptive lie. Perhaps this is the real reason we should only trust fragments as Barthelme counselled. Real history is told not by the totalities of ideology, faith or economics or even philosophies but from a multiplicity of peripheries. The side-characters. The witnesses busy doing other things. The else-wheres. The alibis. At every major historical event, there was someone worrying about other matters or on the way to do something else entirely. Where were you when JFK was shot? isn’t really anything to do with Kennedy, it’s a frozen collective moment, history as cubism or Proteus, an excuse to survey all the pointless, ludicrous, contradictory, magnificent acts of folly we undertake all the time as history unfolds in spite of us. We feign hope that the universe will notice us whilst really pleading that it does not, as it did to Icarus in the painting. Even on the most boring of days, someone’s life is falling apart, someone else’s is hitting a crescendo that they will never surpass again. These other levels of life are happening all around us, in the other corners. One day, it will inevitably happen to us and the ones we love. In the meantime, we talk a good talk at a safe distance from the plummeting figure, who will fall and crash into the sea whether we choose to watch him or not.
I was in Amsterdam for the first time recently and spent many hours walking alone around the canals and side-streets, mainly around De Pijp, Vondelpark and Apollobuurt. Auden’s poem kept coming into my head. In it, we are separated from suffering by space, luck and conscience. In a bohemian picturesque city like Amsterdam, we are separated from it mainly by time (buffer zones that will not always remain sufficient to protect us). I’d read enough about the place to know these same streets that I was walking had saw the Inquisition and the Eighty Years War, the Golden Age and the Black Death, the Nazi Occupation, the Gleichschaltung, the murder of the Jews and the Hongerwinter. “Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?” Camus wrote in The Fall, “The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life — and hence its crimes — becomes denser, darker. Here, we are in the last circle.” A city seems constructed not just from stone, metal and asphalt but from the memories of those who inhabit it, bad memories as with good. I imagined the waters of the canals being somehow forced to reflect everything it had ever reflected over again. It was snowing when I left.
I’ve been researching forgotten aspects of Derry and the North-West for a forthcoming project and have been drawn more and more to the peripheral characters, the inhabitants of the ghost cities that stood once in this same place, under this same name and perhaps somehow reside still in this city. I’ve included some interesting passages I’ve come across below that tell stories of their own, some more macabre than others, far from the convenient mainstream historical narratives. “Children who, wide-eyed, become / Periscopes of the buried dead” Andrei Voznesensky wrote in his poem War. It might be considered possible perhaps to look through the other end of such periscopes.
I have just heard that it is intended to make a graveyard on the grounds of the poorhouse. Was there ever such a project? A place for burial in such a place?
All underneath the poorhouse ground is limestone rock, through which water finds its way as rapidly as down a river course. Granted! Then bury hundreds of putrified bodies, the fluid putrescence will flow into the cisterns at the pumps, and what comforting reflections must occupy the minds of those who use such water.
Tea made out of a stewed old hag, and the master’s whiskey punch diluted with the essence of a boiled beggarman would be rare novelties.
– Letter to The Impartial Reporter (Enniskillen) on 23rd of December 1846.
“You know it is fact that many in the audience are the very scum and offscourgings of the community – thieves and drunkards, spendthrifts and profligates – designing men and lost women. how few are the pure and good in comparison with the unclean and reprobate who crowd the doorways and fill the pit and galleries.”
– Reverend Robert Craig railing against the immorality of Derry’s Opera House in 1877 (it burned down in 1940).
“At an early hour in the morning a bird was observed on a tree at a gentleman’s house in Burt. A clown, who was employed there, mistook it for a hawk and shot it. It proved to be a beautiful green parrot and round its neck was a gold ring on which was ingraved Capt Packenham RN HMS Saldanha. A person in an adjoining field, who was listening to the bird when it was shot, thought it was speaking Spanish or Portugese. What seems extraordinary is that the bird had not been in any part of the country before and the vessel was lost last December. The place where it was killed is about 20 miles from the wreck.”
– Derry Newspaper report from August 1812. HMS Saldanha had been shipwrecked off the coast of Portsalon, Donegal with the loss of 274 souls. One sailor washed ashore alive but had lost his mind and died shortly thereafter.
A quart of meal 1s.0d
One pound of horseflesh 1s.8d
One pound of tallow 4s.0d
One pound of salted hides 1s.0d
One pound of greaves 1s.0d
1/4 of a dog (fattened by
eating corpses) 5s.6d
A dogs head 2s.6d
A quart of horse blood 1s.0d
A horses pudding (gut) 0s.6d
A cat 4s.6d
A rat. fed on human flesh 1s.0d
A mouse 0s.6d
A handful of sea wreck
(sea weed) 0s.2d
A handful of chick weed 0s.1d
We were under so great necessity, that we had nothing left unless we could prey upon one another: A certain fat gentleman conceived himself in the greatest danger, and fancying several of the garrison looked on him with a greedy eye, thought fit to hide himself for three days.”
– ‘Siege menu from George Walker’s ‘Account’
“Profanesness was rampant: on Sundays their main recreations were football or kales and nine-pins, shooting at the butts, quoits, bowling, running at the base, stool-ball leaping and the like.”
– The Quaker Preacher John Edmundson railing against the immorality around Derry’s Diamond. He was arrested and continued to preach fire and brimstone from his gaol window.
“The Wizard of the North who has drawn from the pregnant womb of antiquity all the quintessence of Memphian Crytoplogy and Theban Occultomancy, by which power he has brought the science of ambidextrous prestidigitation to perfection.”
– An ad for a 19th century performance by the Scottish magician at the city’s Corporation Hall (now burned down), other acts included General Tom Thumb and the 7ft 10 Derryman John Allender.
“What four men sow, a hundred come to reap and he who has most success in robbing his neighbours is counted most a man. There is little order among them beyond the jurisdiction of the towns. every petty gentleman lives in a stone tower where he gathers into his service all the rascals of the neighbourhood and of these towers there is an infinite number.”
– A 1567 letter from Diego Ortiz to the King of Spain about the north
“In short, in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases.”
– Captain de Cuellar wrecked in the Spanish Armada and ‘guest’ for seven months in the north
“Brethren, let us depart, for God has appointed a new country for us to dwell in. It is called New England. Let us free of these Pharaohs, these rackers of rent and screwer of tithes, and let us go into the land of Canaan.”
– Reverend James McGregor, last sermon before leaving Derry for the Americas.