Stung by a Strange and Terrible Beauty

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I really enjoyed reading the latest edition of Stinging Fly. Its theme is ‘London’, my home town until I emigrated to Ireland over twenty years ago. There are some interesting essays and articles, great poems and well-crafted stories. It was a delight to read the names of familiar streets, venues, places I know so well (I was reared in North London and went to school in Kilburn). I love it when stories have references to places I know. It adds an extra dimension and excitement to my reading. And some of the tales were very amusing and enjoyable.

However, as I progressed through the pages, I found myself getting a little distressed. London, the city of my childhood, the place of my adolescence, where I gathered my political and work experience, where I first had sex, fell in love, married, gave birth to my children was suddenly being portrayed as a second class experience, not one that was truly valued. London was nothing but a vehicle for change, a safe house, an escape, an excuse. Rightly, the book expressed the Irish emigrants’ experience. It didn’t intend to do anything else. But, of course, for me there is more. The cobbled back alleyways, the Heath, the pubs, the swings, the may blossom, the markets, the down and outs, the river, the theatres, the Northern Line, the trains, the railings, the people, the Asian corner shops, the council estates, the local newspapers, The Queen even, John Steed in his bowler hat, the Saturday morning pictures, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s, most of this was missing.

Of course I totally relate to the grief of emigration described by the writers. I experience it myself now but I didn’t believe, and I think I still don’t, that the ‘grief’ belongs to a physical environment yet somehow, London, in all these stories was absorbing all the sadness that goes with home sickness. Just like the grief of the death of a loved burrows inside one, so lives the grief of emigration. My English up-bringing and experience formed a part of me. It is a part of me, a healthy part, just as my Dublin and Cavan life changed me and are now part of me. I am proud of them all.

So the book unsettled me. I began to feel defensive and protective of London. I felt it was being used and abused, borrowed and not appreciated, though of course I know that’s not true. Many Irish writers still live there. Many still love London. I think my defensive, rather irritated reaction probably reflects just how much I love and am proud of my city. I have to say, it did catch me unawares. It’s mad, and  strange how strong and irrational such feelings are when one doesn’t live in the country one grew up in.

Nationalism…a strange and ‘terrible beauty’ but having said that

Yea! Go Greeks Go!

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