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'I've always been very anti-IRA and anti-nationalist... but there can't be a comparison with Isis sociopaths'

The Big Interview

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 01/08/2016

Belfast-born writer Robert McLiam Wilson
Belfast-born writer Robert McLiam Wilson
Belfast-born writer Robert McLiam Wilson outside a bar near the Charlie Hebdo offices
Flowers are left at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris after the terrorist attack in January of last year
A woman holds a sign reading Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) in tribute to the victims

Belfast author Robert McLiam Wilson lives in Paris and writes for the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. He talks about the climate of fear in France following a series of terrorist attacks.

Q. You grew up in west Belfast in the 1960s and early 1970s, which was a turbulent time. What was that like?

A. I was born in 1964 in the New Lodge, and I lived in Turf Lodge as a kid. My childhood was mayhem. I don't have a BCG mark and I didn't get inoculation jabs against mumps, polio and so on, because Turf Lodge was kind of a no-go area. I didn't see a dentist until I was about eight. Turf Lodge was even wester than west. It was right up against the foot of the mountain.

Areas that were closer to the city centre were tricky enough.

We were right out, we were the nowhere people. And also we were seen as Stickies. I think it's what they called the Official IRA.

Q.Were you ever caught up in the violence?

A.Weirdly I saw more things when I was very young than I did from 12 and into my teenage years. Maybe I had worked out what to stay away from.

Walking to and from school and knocking about the street, I saw a couple of people not do very well.

I saw a cop shot. I remember seeing a body at the roundabout in a lorry at the Monagh Road.

I didn't trust adults because of the way they were behaving. There was a breakdown in any kind of discipline. Your parents can't really tell you not to hit your sister if you see them a day later chucking bricks at the Army.

Q. Did your family throw bricks?

A. My mother would have thrown bricks at anyone, and probably did. She was not a popular lady around the neighbourhood. It was a tough enough family. It was complicated.

We were kind of shunned - imagine being shunned in Turf Lodge.

Q. When did you leave west Belfast?

A. I was about 11. My mother hooked up with this guy who, inconveniently, was a Protestant. So that necessitated some demographic shift.

At that stage I was on the Glen Road, so I went from that to somewhere in east Belfast.

Q. You went to St Malachy's College and later Cambridge University - Cambridge was quite an achievement for someone from Turf Lodge.

A. In a sense, less of an achievement in being from Northern Ireland than elsewhere. If I'd been English, a working-class guy from Manchester or Stoke, it wouldn't have happened.

You might say that religiously segregated education is a very bad thing, but it worked out brilliantly for me.

I don't think there were many grammar schools at that point in the UK, apart from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I wouldn't have gone anywhere without the grammar school system. Cambridge would have been out of the question. It cost me nothing. I was this Turf Lodge Catholic boy who never spent a penny on his clothing, housing or education, and then they sent me to Cambridge. So it was quite hard for me as a west Belfast Catholic to dislike the English, since they had been so nice to me. I left Cambridge early and I didn't get much of an education there, but what I did get was a sheen of sophistication and confidence.

Q. Why did it not work out for you?

A. I left at the end of my second year because I had a dissertation to write. I borrowed a typewriter the night before it was due, and I realised it was not going to work. So I wrote the first chapter of my first novel instead.

There was also a girl involved, which added to the decision.

Q. You are a writer - when did you start writing?

A. I didn't want to be a writer, I wanted to be a footballer.

I stole books from a library on the Falls Road. I hadn't realised you could borrow them - no one told me. The staff in the children's department were on the lookout for little thieves, but a child in the adult section? Nobody cared. I couldn't steal kids books so I nicked Dickens and Thackery. I read them before I could really read. I didn't really know what a children's book was anyway. If you're so unsophisticated that you don't even realise you can borrow from a library, how good is your classification going to be?

I fell madly in love with the idea of being a reader and then a writer.

Q. You were homeless for a while - how did that happen?

A. I was homeless when I was a teenager in Belfast, when I was in sixth form at school.

I was going out with a Protestant girl and my family got very persuasive about the unwisdom of it - very persuasive.

It ended up in me being without a home.

It's a much better idea to be homeless when you are 17 than when you're 47, because nothing could touch me.

I thought I was invincible. I was the Shakespeare-quoting homeless guy. I was homeless for a few periods. I'd get a room somewhere for a bit, but in total it was about three or four months.

Q. And the girl who caused you to be homeless, this never worked out?

A. It was a teenage love. It lasted a good while, but no.

Q. Why did you move to Paris?

A. I had been thinking about it for around 10 years.

By this stage I was married - I got married when I was 25, to a Protestant lady, Mary Ann, from east Belfast. I had to do a reading in Waterstones, and she worked there.

We got married after about five or six weeks - it was very quick.

I'd been going to Paris since about 1995 or 1996 and I did very well in France in terms of my books, so that helped. France was brilliant. Paris was a superb city. It was a delayed decision - we should have done it a lot earlier.

Q. How did you come to write for Charlie Hebdo?

A. Immediately after the attack, a French writer called Marie Darrieussecq got involved in a very practical way, by enrolling writers. Because they had lost so many people they were going to have difficulty continuing, and she brought me on board. I said yes immediately. Some had said no, which if it's a concern about safety, I can understand. Maybe that Belfast thing helped me in that I wasn't worried. I'd grown up around stuff. It was just something I couldn't refuse, because what happened at Charlie Hebdo was a direct attack on the Enlightenment.

Q. You have never felt fear working there?

A. There is no one safer than a Charlie Hebdo writer. No one. For a start, the guys who carried out the attack can't read - they are morons - and it was the cartoons. I stayed away from the office for as long as I could. I was hesitant about being somewhere where I had no place. They were absolutely traumatised. I remember vividly the first time I met most of them. It was in May last year.

They were really lovely people. Unusually for Paris they weren't posturing or concerned about how they appeared. The security is extraordinary. I can't go into too many details, but the place is secret. It is incredibly secure.

Q. France has become a target for terrorists over the last 18 months. How does it compare to Northern Ireland?

A. I was passionately anti-nationalist and anti-IRA. No one was more viciously against them than me, but there is no comparison with these sociopaths.

For a start the IRA didn't want to die.

With these guys it is like the dynamic of pornography - in that everything has to be more and more extreme every time.

The IRA used to talk about spectaculars, like a big bomb in London or Manchester.

These guys over here in France are working on that principle in a very telescoped and contracted way.

You start with a magazine full of cartoonists, you go on to people watching football at the Stade de France and having a drink at the Bataclan concert hall.

Then they target a firework display in Nice, where your target of choice is children, because who goes to firework displays? Children.

And now they target some elderly priest. They are just pushing it every time.

These guys don't have a political aspiration. The thickest IRA or UVF guy that you would have met - and no one had more contempt for them and their IQ than me - they could have given you an answer, however rubbish it was.

With these guys in France there is nothing. It is a void.

Q. Have recent events come as a shock to French people?

A. Before the Charlie Hebdo attack there was something that should have woken people up. I wrote about it a few months beforehand for the BBC. It was called An Irishman in pre-war Paris, because I felt a war was coming.

There was a guy who shot a couple of soldiers and then went to a Jewish school and shot some children, including one he picked up, shot in the head and left, before coming back to make sure.

If you are doing that, you are at a level of pitilessness that is unreachable. You have no mechanism of compassion.

So this has been coming for a long time.

Q. We saw another attack last week, this time on a priest. What is the atmosphere like in France?

A. France was already a very difficult country in terms of race relations. It is nothing like Britain. White French people were, to us, shockingly racist.

Their colonial history is not like ours. They don't have Hindus or West Indians living in the country or in communities that have fitted in particularly well.

There is a huge well of hatred, and a very big lie.

And the lie is that it's a small proportion of any of the groups here that is feeling hatred and fear and anger. I would say it's the majority.

They have a brilliant word here - 'mijoter', which means to simmer. And France is simmering.

There is a much too large proportion of all communities feeling fear and dislike for everybody else.

Q. Do you still keep in touch with Northern Ireland?

A. Definitely. If you ask me what I miss most about it, it's that no one can make me laugh like people from Belfast.

There is something special about funny Belfast people, and there are so many of them. I've been back two or three times - not that often. I think I'll be back more in the future.

When I went to live in England it was similar. You spend the first few years not going back, and then you remember what you liked about it and what you missed about home.

Q. Would you consider coming back to Northern Ireland?

A. You can never say never, but I've really discovered the difference which a climate makes.

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