Get real and love Northern Ireland for what it is, warts and all
Well, I finally realised my long-held ambition and escaped Belfast over the Twelfth. Safe in my Donegal hideaway, I observed events unfold on news feeds and social media.
Of course, I didn't really need to watch: anyone could have written the absurd yet utterly predictable script. The atmosphere of lawlessness, where people are moved out of their homes and their windows are boarded up at massive public expense, because nobody in authority dares to thwart the sky-high ambitions of bonfire builders. The political effigies and "foreign" flags incinerated on the pyres. The violent craziness of Ardoyne. You know, the usual. Same old, same old.
But wait. Here was something new, emerging out of the bitterness and chaos. Under the hashtag 'Positive NI', a posse of outraged optimists were striking back, with pretty pictures of sunsets and reflections and shiny, happy people laughing.
It was intended as a strike-back for all the good things in Northern Ireland, to counteract the nasty hijinks. We are more than a bunch of thuggish nutters locked in endless sectarian struggle. Look, we grow wholesome vegetables and go for walks by the seaside!
I understand the impulse to say that the grotesquerie is not done in our name, to insist (to whom? The rest of the world? Ourselves?) that this is not who we are. Yes, it feels unfair when the rabid few disgrace and inconvenience the peaceable many.
So why was it, gazing at these delightful images, that I found myself feeling just a little bit queasy?
The sensation was similar to the one you get when you over-indulge on candy floss, and that gave me a clue. Desperately trying to present Northern Ireland as an idyllic land of (organic) milk and (fair-trade) honey, where the sun always shines and all the nice, clean, beautiful people get on together marvellously - while all the horrid, ugly types are magically erased without trace - is a mistake.
Because it's self-evidently not the reality. And you know what? I wouldn't want it to be.
I love this place (when I'm not despairing over it, or despising it) because it's dirty, and weird, and complicated. I don't want to pretend I'm living in a made-up version of Islington or Brighton or Shoreditch-on-Sea. I like the bizarre, ribald graffiti. I like the stink of the sluggish underground Farset as you walk down Waring Street on a warm day. I like the chippy, garrulous taxi drivers - well, I like the ones that are funny.
Belfast can be beautiful too, on occasions, but it's a harsh beauty, and all the more moving for being unexpected. One thing it definitely isn't is twee and pretty, and for that I'm glad. If you want a white picket fence, go live in Helen's Bay.
I'm worried, you see, that Belfast is going all hipster. You must have noticed them. They're on the move. Beards, checked shirts, an obsessive relationship with coffee and craft beer and pulled pork sandwiches (though you can bet the pulled pork will be ditched pretty soon now that Subway has started serving it, because you can't be a working-class hipster; sorry, it's just impossible).
Sometimes they're identifiable by the way they talk with a breezy Californian twang even though they're originally from Holywood or Lisburn. The hipster influence may be waning elsewhere, but here in the province, where we're easily seduced by metropolitan affectations, and eagerly accept them as 'cool', they're a new and powerful tribe all to themselves.
And in their own way, they're just as uniform, predictable and conformist as any of our indigenous varieties.
In Belfast, they have cafes with communal tables and plugs for your Macbook Air; you could spend all day in there, sipping single-origin coffee and never have to come across anybody waving a fleg.
They even have their own very expensive magazine, full of misty shots of artfully arranged flowerpots and raw, rough-hewn wood and creatively messy desks.
Look, I'm as fond of a really good cup of coffee as anyone. I follow the traditional route from south Belfast to St George's market on Saturday mornings to buy my rare-breed sausages, gaily swinging my fair-trade woven shopping bag as I go. But the answer to Northern Ireland's weirdness - including the annual convulsions around the Twelfth - is not to construct an elaborate, fetishised Alternative Ulster, where everything in the garden is lovely.
It's to accept the crazy reality of the one that we've got.