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Lost Lines: Reflections on Belfast's distorted streetscape through Literature.

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
Fearghal Murray
University of Bath, UK
Belfast Novelist Robert MacLiam Wilson has described the city as ‘a repository of narratives, of stories. Present tense, past tense and future.’ Over the past half-century of conflict, incompetence and neglect, the everyday narratives that defined the essence of Belfast’s streetscape have been disconnected, distorted or erased. The post-conflict regeneration of Belfast is being founded on the unstable ground of fragmentation, and this is the context in which the city moves forward.

As the dust settles on this turbulent recent history, there is a need for Belfast to become reacquainted with that which it has lost, in order to assess the current emergent condition and proceed with a restored authenticity. One aspect of this authenticity lies within its ‘lived experience’; defined by Henri Lefebvre as how the everyday streetscape is experienced and remembered by its inhabitants. The aims of this dissertation were to revisit Belfast’s missing streetscape to discover the qualities that enriched and brought substance to the experience of everyday life, and to trace changes in character, connectivity and communality, reflecting on what has been lost or neglected, or what has endured or perished.

The elusive nature of what I aimed to discover would require a divergence from traditional methods of study. With its rich storytelling traditions and literary heritage, much of what once made Belfast unique exists only in memory and has been expressed most evocatively by those artists who sincerely depict their city as a theme within or backdrop to their narratives. These literary stories and voices have the power to distil the poetic realism of ordinary Belfast, acting as touchstones to the lost, lived streetscape which eludes the realm of conventional urban analysis.

Literature can help expose the gap that exists between the experienced reality of Belfast’s distorted urban fabric and the preconceived notions embedded within the city’s misguided regeneration. The dominant urban themes that emerge from the city’s literature formed the narrative of the dissertation itself, revealing aspects of the streetscape from the geological to the human, from the timeless to the ephemeral.

Fearghal Murray

Belfast, during its troubles, has suffered intense and degrading damage. Busy arteries, once shared by adjacent communities have become barren boundaries crossed by no-one; places once hives of inter-communal activity have been burned out. Since peace, attempts at restoration have tended to ossify scars rather than heal them. This, it is argued, stems from a failure of analysis, a failure to properly value what has been lost.

Conventional analysis, using maps and diagrams, may point out issues of degradation and severance, but does not account for the loss most deeply felt by the inhabitants, which is the loss of a way of living. To account for this it is necessary to listen to the voices of those inhabitants, especially their must eloquent representatives - their writers and poets.

Belfast has housed an extraordinary number of great and minor scribes, and their voices are skillfully marshalled here to illustrate a series of urban themes - the enduring landscape, the fragile streets, the devastated market district - which combine to show what has been lost forever, and what might, with sensitivity, be recovered. A number of warmly valued urban characters are distilled - orientation outwards to the surrounding hills, inwards to the colossal dockyard gantries, principles of porosity and neighbourliness. These are things lost or damaged by the troubles, capable of salvage, but in fact being utterly destroyed by the banality of recent developments.

As a piece of architectural writing this is novel, adventurous, pertinent and deeply moving. The author has a natural feel for language, and expresses himself as deftly as the poets whom he quotes. He intends to practice in Belfast, a city he clearly knows well and deeply loves. He has developed in this work a new methodology for urban analysis comparable in structure to Kevin Lynch and in sheer readability to Emrys Jones. Though smaller in scale than either, it surpasses both in passion and emotional impact. His essay deserves to find a wide audience, ideally perhaps on radio. It has important messages, resonantly communicated, about the particular situation in Belfast, and about urban living in general.

Prof Paul Richens
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