Belfast Telegraph

Jeremy Paxman Titanic comments: Being insulted by outsiders is one thing to unite us

By Fionola Meredith

There's nothing like a smug Englishman slagging us off to get us riled-up, red-faced and roaring. When Jeremy Paxman looked down his well-bred, horsey nose at Belfast, deriding us for costing too much in UK taxes, wearing an excessive amount of fake tan and having a smelly Christmas market, we reacted with outrage.

Being on the receiving end of that cool contempt sets off some kind of deeply-buried race memory of oppression, in both unionists and nationalists alike. (Or not so deeply-buried, in some cases.) It surges up in us like lava - it's actually quite an enjoyable sensation - and we screech with the cumulative rage of centuries, jumping up and down and ranting like wild savages. You can easily imagine Paxman staring at us with an expression of mild disgust, then turning away with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. Provincials. Little people. What more can you expect?

We don't like being insulted, or patronised, by outsiders. In fact, it's one of the few things that reliably unites us. Mutual alienation can be very bonding. We may be at each other's throats over flags, or parades, or the past, but if somebody says a bad word against the likes of Christine Bleakley, we forget all that and rush together to defend her. It's fine for us to loathe ourselves, and each other, but no one else is allowed that privilege.

I've seen it happen time after time. At a community relations conference, where the keynote speaker, a self-described "urban therapist", swooping in to diagnose and recommend, managed to unite almost everyone in the room in seething collective resentment. And, again, when the London food writer Jay Rayner came to town, with the manner of a man bringing metropolitan knowledge to the benighted rustic masses. He had the nerve to leave Northern Ireland entirely off his Powerpoint map of where potatoes are grown in the UK. Disgusting. Doesn't he know that potatoes are in our blood? Our very DNA has the texture of fadge.

Paxman got some facts badly wrong in his sleggin' of Belfast. For instance, he seemed to think that the shipyard had vanished and that the giant yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath, were there just for show. Ill-informed rubbish: from the Titanic era to the present, Harland & Wolff has always operated at the leading edge of technology and now the company is flourishing again, having found new opportunities in offshore renewable energy.

But there's truth in what he's saying, too, and we should be big enough and brave enough to hear it. "If you ever wonder what happens to your taxes, I recommend a visit to Northern Ireland," Paxman remarked acidly. Well, yes: public spending per head in the UK is at its highest in Northern Ireland, at £10,900, or £20bn in total. Thanks to our long history of political dysfunctionality and ineptitude, we're hoovering up disproportionate amounts of cash. No wonder people across the water look at our noisy, expensive squabbles with increasing frustration and distaste. I would, if I lived there.

And, yes, it was crass and provocative to say that whatever the loss of life in the Titanic disaster, "that iceberg did the city a huge favour". But he's absolutely correct that we have ditched the idea of Titanic as a shameful tragedy and embraced it, instead, as a worldwide brand, a bit like Disneyland, exploiting that lucrative magic for commercial profit. Isn't it time we admitted it?

As for Paxman's verdict on the Christmas market at City Hall, which offers "the odours of 40 varieties of food you could not think of eating" - spot on, Jeremy. It's tacky and noxious with burger-smoke: a plastic, over-priced version of a real continental market. In fact, we do have a brilliant market - St George's - which sells truly outstanding local produce all through the year, but it seems that Paxman didn't hang around long enough to try it out.

Some local people take a perverse pleasure in constantly running Belfast down, castigating it for its bigotry, its tedium, its rain, its excess of loud-mouthed mediocrities. Others extol it to a delusional extent, as a world-class capital on a par with Paris or Sydney. Both impulses are infantile. Provincial, in fact. Let's see Belfast for what it really is: a small, weird, wounded city, seething with contradictions, alive with strange colour. A place we hate. A place we care about so deeply that it hurts.

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