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Soundtrack of Troubles was screams and sobbing, not Bay City Rollers

As BBC2 prepares for a new series of Pop Goes Northern Ireland, are we making too light of our past, asks Gail Walker

On Sunday night on BBC2 Pop Goes Northern Ireland repeated its first series (originally shown in 2010) as a prelude to the second series. It's a routine TV and radio formula now - vintage news and social comment footage intercut with popular songs of the day - and RTE's Reeling In The Years is still doing a turn for the Irish broadcaster. It's all pre-packed TV, cheap as chips, nostalgic for the most part, and even the odd tragedy can be given a moody (but popular) soundtrack.

Where it is risky, of course, is when there just ain't a lot of fluff to go round and the predominant mood of the decades was relentless depression, solemnity, tragedy - or, put it another way, the Troubles.

On its show RTE had to periodically address terrorist events in Northern Ireland during the Seventies and Eighties amid its conveyor belt of Eurovision, farmers' strikes, oil spills, sex scandals and beef tribunals, and the format visibly creaked on each and every occasion.

It just can't "do" ghastly goblin-work comfortably - whether it's Bloody Sundays or Fridays, hunger strikes or pub bombings, the breathless pitter-pat of what is poptastic just gives way and the segue in and out of grisly dismemberment is awkward and embarrassing.

With Pop Goes Northern Ireland - even the title will get some people's backs right up straight away, like a Pop Goes The Occupied Six Counties or a Pop Goes The Province would - the simple fact is that everything that really mattered here was grim and violent.

Even our strikes were soaked in sectarianism. The idea that murders and bombs were not the norm is itself a falsification. In fact, normality was abnormal and unusual. We had to declare a 24-hour ceasefire in order to have Christmas.

This isn't to say that Pop Goes Northern Ireland doesn't have its entertaining moments, such as affording us the opportunity of sneering at the generations immediately preceding us. Look at that trade union spokesman's outrageous panda collar! That politician is smoking during an interview! Now that's a miniskirt! Or there's the old C&A, Anderson & McAuley's, Robinson and Cleaver, the Grand Hotel.

So, within the limits of a very limited genre, Pop Goes Northern Ireland is not especially offensive. Director Michael McDowell deserves praise for whipping up a tasty enough souffle.

It's just that it's odd that, over a weekend when the idea of 'truth and reconciliation' has raised its head again, Pop Goes Northern Ireland seems to be just another way for us to hang on to our Troubles. And I wonder if we do this not so much out of respect for those who died, but because it still gives us a tingling charge of importance, an elemental surge of identity?

After all, how else do you explain such a burgeoning phenomenon as Troubles tours, especially when booked out by the local populace? Those double-decker buses, visiting the actual places where we slaughtered each other. Or those Troubles magazines which litter the bottom shelf of newsagents. Or the multi-volume collections of cack-handed Troubles murals? Or plays such as Martin Lynch's The History Of The Troubles (According To My Da) or The History Of The Peace Process (According To My Ma) packing out the Grand Opera House?

You can talk about understanding history, exorcising the demons of the past, confronting the dark side of our city, blah, blah, blah, but perhaps in a weird way we are actually also remembering a time when we were important, when we strutted the world stage, when David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman, Vincent Hanna et al hung on our every word, when you couldn't walk down Great Victoria Street without being nabbed by a foreign film crew to be asked your views on the Anglo-Irish Agreement (or the UWC strike, or the hunger strike, or just the latest sickening murder)? A time when pop bands wrote morose songs about us.

Quick quiz question: who is the Secretary State for Northern Ireland? Even if you got it right* (see bottom of column for answer), you struggled, didn't you? Be honest.

Whereas during the Troubles, we had Willie Whitelaw, Merlyn Rees, Roy Mason, James Prior - all of whom, if you squinted your eyes and imagine just ever so slightly different alternative histories, could have ended up in No 10. In other words, all big beasts.

After that type of dark flattery, it's hard to get worked up about social security budgets. Nowhere is this nostalgia more thick on the ground than in the world of journalism and the media.

The Troubles were a heyday for journalists who love to corner you in a bar late at night to recall tales of nights at the Europa, pre-arranged blindfolded trips to meet the leaders of 'B Coy' who had a statement to give unto the world, risque stories of what the politicians were like really, you know, after a few …

And if this sort of nostalgia pervades the well-to-do-middle classes, just imagine what it may be like in some deprived pockets of our city where joining paramilitaries, going to dark shebeens, singing the songs, joining the protests were the pattern of life. Indeed, it gave life most of its meaning. And that is why we're wrong to keep harping back.

Because it soft-focuses murder. It sprinkles toxic fairy dust over the Shankill Butchers, McGurk's, the atrocities of Claudy, Enniskillen, Greysteel, Kingsmill, Darkley, Loughinisland (and dozens of other place names on the map), over the demons who made civilians into human bombs, over the 'heroes' who slit a drunk woman's throat because she ended up in the wrong social club.

Somehow it lessens the moral charges against those who did those heinous acts of barbarity. And also against us as a whole - the people who allowed these things to happen.

The truth is that their agonies deserve to be remembered by the consolations of great art: Picasso's Guernica, Goya's paintings of war, Heaney's poetry. They shouldn't be the cue for the easy anecdote or the bar-room laugh.

In other words, their deaths deserve an attempt of eternal spiritual heft, not the transient trivialities of ersatz nostalgia.

Our dead deserve Mozart's Requiem, not - for all their tartan trousers - the Bay City Rollers.

* James Brokenshire

Belfast Telegraph

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