It’s been something of a secret but, between creating one-eyed shrieking monstrosities in the laboratory and bouncing Tesla death rays off the moon, I’ve been working on the Return of Colmcille project for Derry’s City of Culture extravaganza. I’ve been mainly interviewing local people about the city to uncover less well-known stories of a marvellous, macabre and melancholic nature, which will then be incorporated into festivities lined up for the 7th & 8th of June. If the blueprints and people involved are anything to go by, it will be an event destined to melt peoples’ faces off, in the best possible sense. I was on BBC radio yesterday morning talking about the project, which I gather you can listen to here (I’m not sure how far into it we appear as I’m hobbled with embarrassment at the thought of listening to myself, lovely as the radio people were). The account I referred to is by a fascinating and very charming man I had the joy of getting to know called John ‘Red’ Doran, a man who has lived a hundred lives and been a gentleman in each one.
Being fairly hermetic, it’s been a genuine pleasure meeting and talking to people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise and of course to work alongside Frank Cottrell Boyce (being blown away by the Olympics Opening Ceremony and a fan of 24 Hour Party People especially) and the brilliant Walk the Plank team. Rather than reinforce preconceptions of the areas I grew up in, the project has made me realise that I never really knew my hometown and just relied on the tiny radius of my own street-urchin experience. In a way, it’s because there isn’t one city to know but instead there’s thousands of perspectives of the city from within, a many-angled cubist perspective of history and geography. There are as many Derrys as there has been inhabitants; they might be complex and contradictory or ghostly or almost forgotten but they come alive when reawakened by memory, myth or even fiction. Walking around streets that have been familiar since childhood, it’s possible to view them in an entirely different light with knowledge of what was there before. For want of a better word, it seems a form of psychogeography, as well as time travel.
I can’t say too much given the project is ongoing and I’m looking forward myself to being surprised by the end result. In the course of interviews, I spoke to smugglers, air raid wardens, sailors, boxers, fishermen, seamstresses, emigrants, footballers, lords, civil rights activists, ice cream-men, fugitives and folk singers. I spoke to people who had seen the mighty Amelia Earhart land following her Transatlantic flight and those who had witnessed the Nazi U-boat fleet surrender here at the end of the Second World War. I’ve heard stories of highwaymen, bar-brawls, lost loves, atomic bomb detonations, sea voyages and hand-built aeroplanes. General Tom Thumb, Sean the Outlaw, Paul Robeson and Half-Hung McNaughton. I’ve been party to explicit limericks, illicit poitín recipes, card tricks, dancehall moves and murder ballads.
For many years, I’ve read the likes of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair (descendants of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz) as they brilliantly stripped away the various layers of London; uncovering, as the old Situationist phrase goes, what lies beneath the paving stones. London’s benefited so much from these studies that it’s almost a cliche to mention its underground rivers or the old place-names or personal recollections of its forgotten corners but why stop at London? Every city and town can and should be rediscovered and reimagined in such a way. In an age when supposedly-cultured newspapers spend their time interviewing the creators of twitter parody accounts or z-list slebs, it’s left to the rest of us to uncover and document these real, significant and overlooked stories before they are lost forever. More than anything, we should afford the elder members of our communities the respect they deserve by just shutting our traps and listening for a change. It’s in our own benefit to make these connections to the past while they still exist; what was might just refresh how we view the present.