I’ve just returned from the launch of the East Belfast Arts Strategy at the wonderful Strand Cinema, (which I can practically see from the top floor of my house). I moved to the East at the end of the summer. A lot of my friends live round here. The houses are affordable, there’s a whole series of little independently owned food stores at the end of the street and it’s a reasonably quick walk into the city centre. I say this to justify why I moved to this part of the city, though I’ve never had any inclination to live in this section of Belfast before. I’ve always located myself as close as possible to Queens and all the coffee shops, pubs, venues and galleries which are clustered round the city centre. East Belfast was never somewhere I associated with a strong artistic offer.
Tonight, as various important people delivered their speeches from the Strand’s stage, it became clear that there are a lot of other people in Belfast, (and beyond), who also struggle to see East Belfast as a creative part of the city. In fact, one man, interviewed for the report, actually said, “it doesn’t matter what you do. The arts just isn’t in the DNA of the people of East Belfast.” Quite a controversial statement, but it got us thinking and debating, over drinks in Clements, (there still being a distinct and disproportionate lack of pleasant pubs in which to enjoy a drink in East Belfast).
The somewhat shocking statistic that East Belfast receives only 4% of the city’s arts budget, (not the world’s best mathematician here but my geography GCSE would suggest that East as a direction = a 25% section of the compass, not 4%), could be a little misrepresentative when you consider the limited choice of venues in the East and the fact that most of our major arts organisations are based on the other side of the Lagan. However, as I walk home each day, over the Albert Bridge, (where the swarming birds constantly terrify me and occasionally pooh on my head), up the Short Strand, (picking my way through constellations of glass shards and smeared dog shit), and past Connswater Tesco, (where I once had the audacity to ask if they stocked avocados), to Belmont, (where the streets are too small to accommodate the big-wheeled cars and there are shops which sell candles that cost the same price as a three course meal), I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something bigger, more complicated and potentially troubling, about the arts and culture in East Belfast.
These are only my thoughts and I know that arts provision is a complicated and multi-headed beast and would not want to presume to have any answers concerning an arts strategy for East Belfast. I think there’s something about poverty going on here- the discrepancy in arts engagement between one end of East Belfast and the other is truly worrying. I’m sure there’s also something about the very strong sense of single-identity which still pervades much of the East and perhaps makes it more problematic to acquire funding in a Belfast now focused on engaging all sectors of the community. I also think there are questions to be raised when you consider just how many strong, artistic voices have emerged from the East and then consider that relatively few of these voices are still resident in this part of the city.
However, I believe there are other factors at work in East Belfast, factors which might well help us to understand why someone would think that art just isn’t in the DNA of a whole sector of the city. Having grown up in a rural Presbyterian-dominated community, there’s something about the pervading Protestant culture in East Belfast which reminds me of home. I grew up in a church where art was at best unnecessary and more often than not perceived to be problematic. It took me a long time, and the wise guidance of people who both believed in the church and in the sanctity of creative expression, to understand that my artistic output and enjoyment is actually an integral part of my faith. Whilst the majority of young people in East Belfast no longer have the same connection to the Protestant church as their parents or grandparents, they are only a few generations removed from the influence of churches which rarely entertained a progressive understanding of the arts. Post-reformation the Protestant church has had an unholy fear of iconography and any related attempt to harness the divine through creative expression, (outside the realms of Sunday worship). It doesn’t surprise me that a large part of East Belfast might still be under the mistaken, (albeit subconscious), belief that art is not part of their DNA. In some senses this is a spiritual problem as much as a cultural one.
This evening I was also struck by the geography of the East.This is a section of the city which barely existed before the 1880s. It grew in parallel with the development of the shipyard, expanding almost overnight to meet the need for cheap, easy-to-construct houses to accommodate the thousands of men who’d migrated to Belfast for jobs in ship construction. The houses in East Belfast are tightly packed, functional, almost claustrophobic. As you move closer to the shipyards and the Lagan there’s a distinct lack of green space, few trees, and many houses which front directly on to the pavement. The architecture of East Belfast takes no shit. It has no time for frivolity or aesthetic indulgence. It’s all about utility and “proper” functional industry. It’s not difficult to understand, whilst standing in the bowels of the East’s terraced burrows, how art might seem frivolous or unnecessary in this kind of environment; how difficult it might be within this setting, for a young person, or even an older person to begin their journey as an artist. It’s not the most nurturing of environments. Even though East Belfast has produced more than its fair share of amazing artists, much of the work which has traditionally come out of the East retains a gritty, stoical realism, arguably influenced by the environment in which it was created.
All this to say I am excited to be a writer living in East Belfast. I am excited to see investment coming in to the culture and arts sector of the East and hope that money and enthusiasm is used wisely; invested rather than spent. I am not naïve. This is not going to be an easy win. There are massive issues to be tackled in this part of the city; issues which could both work against the development of an arts and cultural strategy, and majorly benefit from creative engagement. I want to be part of this journey. It is important for me to be an artist in the place where I live and I have, over the last six months, lamented how many times I have to make my way into the city centre to hear bands or attend readings, to see theatre or watch good movies. There’s every excuse for cynicism here. The track record hasn’t been great over the last few decades but let’s anticipate good things for the East. The artistic legacy here is inspiring; the artistic potential, incredible and the implications if we don’t engage, potentially devastating.