Mike Davis on Belfast (and getting asked to leave)

This is a part of my interview with Mike Davis for the L.A. Times that didn’t make the final cut. I still found it interesting. You can read the published interview here.

Mike Davis: When I was at UCLA, I used this huge scholarship I won from my father’s union, the meat cutters, to go abroad for a year. I was going to Edinburgh, and Mike [a Glaswegian Teamster brother] took me aside and he said, don’t set foot in that place. He says, it’s, it’s like a dead planet. You gotta go to Glasgow.

Sam Dean: <laugh>.

MD: And I did kind of fall in love with Glasgow, but rather than staying in Edinburgh. I ended up going to Belfast to write about the outdoor relief riots, when in the depths of the depression, both Catholics and Protestants had rioted. That event, going to Belfast, changed my life, and sent me back to Belfast time and time again until I’d married somebody that grew up there.

SD: Is that how you got into the New Left Review orbit?

MD: Yeah, I got in New Left Review orbit when I was involved with the International Marxist group in Scotland, and then their tiny little affiliate in Belfast, and most of the New Left Review people were at that point involved. So I met them through the political group and somehow ran into Perry Anderson. We had a long talk and I told him about this idea I had for writing a book about the American working class.

So I leave and I end up back in LA. Next I know, under the door is a contract and a thousand-dollar advance. Now mind you, I’d published hardly anything at all. One article on sabotage. And it took me forever to cash the check. I just didn’t think I was capable of it, but that ended up being my first book.

Perry asked me to come to London in 1980, and I ended up staying most of the eighties in London, totally wrapped up in the whole strange world of the New Left Review. Some of the worst years of my life. I couldn’t wait to be back to Belfast. The real warmth in the British Isles, the real grit, is all in the north of England and Scotland. And Belfast was like — I was at times the only American there, apart from people in the American consulate, but I got on like a house on fire because of my, you know, kind of ribald sense of humor.

I could take a good slagging and give it back. And when you’re slagged by an Irish woman, you might wish you were being tortured by the Gestapo instead. But this was just the scene where I wanted to be, people I wanted to be with, where I formed some of the deepest friendships of my life as well as getting married there.

In some ways Belfast, being in Belfast off and on, and then living there full-time for a while, is damn near the most important thing in my life — though the births of my children have been the most important events of my life.

Ultimately I had to leave Belfast. My wife, who grew up in the most, before Sarajevo, the most war-torn neighborhood in Western Europe, called Ardoyne, in Belfast, one of her friend’s husbands had just been convicted in a Diplock juryless court and given 20 years for supposedly being implicated in an attempted assassination of a judge. Guy named Michael. And the only evidence against him was a confession extracted by torture in Castlereagh, the British army headquarters. The European court of human rights delivered this devastating verdict over the torture, they’d take people up in helicopters threaten to throw them out, and beat up people incessantly.

I’d become good friends with Tamara Deutscher, Isaac Deutscher’s widow, and through Tamara I got Zhores Medvedev and some other prominent Eastern European leftwing dissidents to support the case. And at the end of day, I managed to get a representative from the lawyer’s guild from New York and a woman from Amnesty International, from West Germany, to come to the hearing. He had already been convicted. This was an appeal. And it was hopeless, because the judge wouldn’t listen to anything. Michael hadn’t done anything. The guy with him had actually tried unsuccessfully to kill [the judge] — this other guy was great character. When he was sentenced, he pulls out a pack of Marlboros and he says [miming a walkie-talkie], “Jesus, beam me up, Scotty, I’m in bad shape here.” Typical Belfast man.

But the IRA didn’t like [my rallying support] at all, because their position was: they’re an army at war, and they’re not gonna single out anybody for special pleading.

So even though my wife was well respected, I was told that I was persona non grata, because the Provisional IRA exerted total hegemony, there really wasn’t hardly any space for independent left activity. Even if it was in solidarity with them, this was war, they were the army, end of story. It never stopped me from going back and so on, but it ended the period of trying to live there full time.

The Troubles were like, I felt like we were existentialists in the French Resistance. Because my friends faced extraordinary risk and really didn’t worry about it too much. And I became just addicted to that, the staying up all night, we stayed up every night, drunk, eating soda bread. You know, playing the guitar, telling stories, slagging and being slagged.

SD: What year did you have to leave?

MD: I went to Belfast, originally through Edinburgh, in ‘74, 75, probably spent four or five months there altogether, very seldom in Edinburgh. And I returned annually at least. And then we moved there in ’80, we lived in an area called the Holy Land, all the streets were named Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, and so on. Then back and forth over many years and then to Dublin —  I don’t really like the south very much.

Particularly the Southern middle class, the Dublin middle class. Belfast is most similar to Glasgow, but they’re kind of inverted because in Glasgow, labor has trumped sectarianism. There’s a lot of sectarianism, if you’ve been to Celtics vs. Rangers matches you would know that.

SD: Right, right.

MD: But labor is the stronger tradition, working class unity. Belfast is the opposite. It’s where sectarianism trumps labor, though it has strong labor traditions. But the humor and the craic are very similar, much darker than in Dublin. I’ve seen people just utterly blown out of the water by an evening with my friends in Belfast, when people came over to visit me. One guy, a New York Marxist. A nice guy, but he just couldn’t hack it. He didn’t understand why everybody hated him. And I kept telling him, they don’t hate you. You just, you know, you gotta play the dozens with people.

SD: <laugh> right.

MD: This was when I was training for the Belfast marathon, I was really good runner. And I used to run at nights in Belfast. Sometimes the only person on the streets of the Lagan River towpath for six, seven miles at night.

SD: <laugh>

MD: Never had any problems. But then the first Belfast marathon is being organized. And this time I get a visit from these guys who were my close buddies, who I had earlier, before I got married, they’d come over [to the U.S.] to visit me. And we spent a whole summer just bumming up and down the West Coast. It was a great adventure.

But they came to me and said, the Brits are trying to normalize the war here. That’s the function of the marathon. Uh, nobody would be very happy if you actually ran it. And of course, you know, solidarity. I don’t run it.

Years later, they’re all training for the marathon, it became a big deal.

My favorite memory probably above all is of Derry City. I went to a soccer match, a football match there. Derry City had been thrown out of the Northern Ireland football league for rioting. But down in the Bogside, the infamous Bogside, they were gonna play the Garda Siochana, the Irish cops. They had a first class team.

So we go down to the Bogside and it’s just, there’s so many people that I’m actually scared we’re gonna get squished together. The Garda Siochana kind of comes onto field first and the crowd starts chanting “Brit loving murdering bastards, brit loving murdering bastards.” And then Derry City comes out, and it has like three Black guys on the team, West Indian guys who ended up marrying Catholic girls and staying there. And then Derry City begins its chant: “We’re black, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite. We’re black, we’re white, we’re fucking dynamite.” It was wild.

SD: That’s incredible.

MD: Absolutely crushed the team from the south. Derry was like fresh air, because in Belfast, the times I lived in Belfast were the height of the sectarian murders. The Shankill Butchers and so on. But you go to Derry and it really was like the air was free, Catholics were the majority. There were very few assassinations or violence. Everybody in Belfast thought the greatest place in the world to go for vacation was Derry, not to France or Italy.