Don’t let punks become PR men just to reel in tourists
Last week, at the opening of the new film about legendary Belfast punk impresario Terri Hooley, Good Vibrations, I experienced an unusual sensation — so unusual, in fact, that I couldn't immediately identify it.
Then it came to me: it was pride. A sense of local pride in a film that drew almost completely from Belfast talent: script by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, direction by Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn, soundtrack by David Holmes and a fabulous, frenetic, moving evocation of Hooley himself by Richard Dormer.
But this wasn't just a film about Terri Hooley. It was also a love-letter to our complex, wounded, irrepressible city, caught somewhere between the gutter and the stars: a place that can infuriate and inspire like no other.
Whisper it quietly, but I wasn't convinced that I would like Good Vibrations. In real life, Hooley seems to be an amiable man — and he certainly deserves praise for keeping a spirit of joyous, youthful anarchy alive in a city throughout the deadening days of the Troubles.
But Hooley is often followed about by a herd of sycophantic worshippers, who treat him like the punk Messiah of Belfast. I feared that some of that foolish hype might have found its way into the film. Luckily it didn't.
Instead, it showed both the man and the city itself as flawed, impossibly contrary, but never without hope. And that made me like it all the more.
It touched me, because this was a city I could recognise. This was the capricious city that, in spite of all, I love.
If I were a psychologist, I'd diagnose this country with a bad case of repressed self-loathing. Secretly, we still don't think that much of ourselves. Why else do we need to over-compensate and shout so loudly about how “world-class” we are?
It's also why we react so strongly when one of our own comes under any kind of attack. Some English twerp criticises Christine Bleakley for her accent and it's treated like a form of blasphemy, or as though we were all being grotesquely libelled.
It's not really about Christine's nasal vowels at all: it's about us being defensive, insecure and not very sure of ourselves. That's why we take these things so personally. Unfortunately, the only form of civic pride currently available to us is the glossy, sanitised official variety. 2012, and all that.
This year of mega-events is, we're told by the tourist board, “the tipping point for Northern Ireland and a real chance to change perceptions”. No malingering or whining now: “We need everyone to pull together to really make the most of this.”
Earlier this year, tourism minister Arlene Foster said she was “frustrated to the ends of the earth” by people talking down the Titanic Belfast project and blamed the media for fuelling negativity.
Now I'm no fan of pointless whinging, such as the absurd rumpus over public access to the staircase in Titanic Belfast. And the aims of the 2012 campaign itself are reasonable: driving visitor numbers, generating economic impact and so on.
It's just that many of us don't recognise this one-dimensional image of Northern Ireland, painted in primary colours, that we're all supposed to be selling.
It's the PR-generated version of our country, full of froth and sparkle, not the unique reality, which is actually far more fascinating.
Why should the bureaucrats be the ones to write the stories of our times? Why should we buy into this slick marketeer's version of local identity?
There's a term for all this: civic boosterism. It comes from the 19th century expansion of the American West, when leaders of small towns made extravagant predictions for their settlement in order to attract more residents. Now we're doing exactly the same thing, only in the hope of enticing tourists.
A bit of boosterism is acceptable. But there has to be room for dissent otherwise the punks turn into PR men and all colour, variety and strangeness is lost.
More than a century ago, the American writer Sinclair Lewis put it this way: “The booster's enthusiasm is the motive force which builds up our American cities. Granted. But the hated knocker's jibes are the check necessary to guide that force. In summary then, we do not wish to knock the booster, but we certainly do wish to boost the knocker.”
The truth is, we're not world-class. We're Northern Ireland. And I say that with hope, frustration, affection — and pride.