First day blues

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme the First Day of School.

You can steal me and use me as your own

I had never intended to be there. This had not been a part of my grand, life plan, dreamed about for so many years. Nevertheless, there I was, standing around waiting to meet up with a few old friends from school who had also ended up at this place. We were getting together to attend the Fresher’s Bazaar on our first day at university.

In 1983 The Queens University of Belfast was not the university of choice for most British students. It had a highly regarded medical school where students got to see first hand how to treat bomb damaged bodies and the victims of shootings. Being so close to the centre of a troubled city was not, however, regarded as ideal for those unfamiliar with the province. However good the teaching may have been, location mattered.

It was not The Troubles that I was trying to escape from but rather the mindset of the people who perpetuated what I regarded as a pointless conflict. Some of the teenagers I had grown up with were starting to talk like their parents, to harbour the same prejudices. I wanted out.

I had applied to study at The University of Western Australia and received a generous scholarship offer dependant on acceptable grades in my final school exams. I also had an offer from The University of Warwick, and my safety net offer from Queens. All the locals knew that Queens could provide a safety net because there just wasn’t the same competition for places at that time.

Some chose this place because they were happy to stay close to their families. I was not one of them.

The day my ‘A’ level results came out my hopes and dreams were shattered and I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had studied subjects that were beyond my ability and had not put in the effort that would have been required to sufficiently raise my grades.

I would not be flying away to sunny Perth to start my life anew, or even travelling across the water to the mainland. Instead I would be catching the Number 38 bus from outside my parent’s house and travelling three miles down the road, past both my primary and my secondary schools, to attend my local university, Queens. I recognised that I was fortunate that they had agreed to take me despite my poor results. I knew some had not been even this lucky.

September was filled with pub crawls to say goodbye to the friends who had got away. At the end of the month those of us who were left arranged to meet up at the Fresher’s Bazaar. We were a motley crew, brought together by chance and circumstance. It was not the exciting new start that I had anticipated.

The Fresher’s Bazaar was full of stalls manned by the various clubs and societies run by the university. I stopped off at the University Air Squadron stand where one of the volunteers tried to chat me up. The banner overhead invited students to learn to fly; I rather liked the idea of that. However, it soon became clear that there was a problem; I was female. Oh, they most definitely wanted me to join, but they could not offer to training me as a pilot. The heated discussion on discrimination that I was eager to pursue was cut short when my friends pulled me away. Somehow this episode seemed to sum up my day.

We organised our student cards and membership of the sports club before retiring to one of the many bars in the Students Union, a place where I spent a lot of my time in that first year. I attended the parties and balls, sold the Rag magazine, dressed up for parades, but never felt that I fitted in. Most of the friends I had were from my school days, friends and friends of friends. I lost touch with the few new acquaintances that I got to know when I left the place five years later.

On that first day at university I knew that I had put on hold the life that I wanted in order to gain the qualification that I needed to eventually fulfil my dreams. Queens is a fine university and the quality of the teaching could not be faulted, it was simply not where I wanted to be.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that everything happens for a reason, that the life I now lead and love would not have come about had I achieved my ambitions way back then. At the time though, that first day had the taste of failure. I determined that I would do all that I could to ensure I never experienced that taste again.

Queens-University-Belfast-0064

To read the other posts in this Blog Hop, click on the link below.

Forming a political opinion

I have been mulling over the events that lead to me write yesterday’s post. On hearing that Margaret Thatcher had died, a number of friends have been making known their views on her tenure as Prime Minister; the media and blogosphere are overflowing with comments posted on her life and legacy. I have been surprised that so many feel so strongly about someone who last wielded any sort of power over twenty years ago. The friend who I was referring to yesterday wrote an interesting piece setting out why he feels such animosity towards her, and I will continue to consider all of the views expressed. For today I am still deliberating over why we see things so differently; on what causes us to form our disparate opinions.

My friend and I were both born and raised in Belfast during what is known as The Troubles. Both of us come from families with a strong, working class background; debt averse, hard working and family oriented. We were educated at single sex grammar schools having attained our places by passing a selective test, and were amongst the first generation of our families to attend university. From there our paths diverge.

My friend spent many years in academia before moving on to a career in the arts and media. To my knowledge, he has spent all of his life living in cities and now divides his time between properties he owns in the capitals of England and Germany. He has around ten times as many friends on Facebook as I do; an apparently eclectic mix from a wide variety of backgrounds.

I left university when I acquired my primary degree and spent ten years working in technology for the financial services industry. I left this to raise my children and, at the same time, my husband and I set up our own company which we still run. Since leaving Belfast I have lived in the gloriously peaceful and beautiful county of Wiltshire; for over twenty years now I have lived in the same quiet, rural village. With just a few exceptions,  my small group of friends are living a life similar to my own.

Margaret Thatcher first came to power while my friend and I were both still living in Belfast. At that time I had few political views, and those I had related to the problems in Ireland rather than England or further afield. We did not have the opportunity to vote for candidates representing the main, British political parties; those representing us in parliament gave their allegiance to the small parties of Northern Ireland. Life in Belfast was, I believe, much more insular than would be the case now.

I remember the strikes of the nineteen seventies, the three day week and the pictures on television of the clashes between police and the miners. It was a turbulent time but, coming from Belfast, I was also used to seeing pictures of the aftermath of the bombings and shootings that were still regular occurrences and were happening just a few miles from my own front door. I did not start to form opinions on the politics of mainland Britain until I moved to England during Margaret Thatcher’s third and final term as Prime Minister. My friend went up to an English university so may have been starting to form his opinions a little earlier.

Margaret Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was Prime Minister during my early years in England. After him came Tony Blair. Whereas my friend would blame Margaret Thatcher for destroying much of the social fabric of working class England, I would blame Tony Blair for introducing sound bite, shallow politics. He wasn’t the first leader to lie and deceive but I saw his politics as hugely destructive to trust and democracy in this country, and despise the man. By the time he left office I was developing my own political ideas.

I wonder why the views that I have formed are so at odds with the strongly held views that my friend holds. Given that we had such similar upbringings I can only conclude that it is the experiences and influences that we have encountered since leaving our parental homes that have shaped us. His metropolitan, arty, media influenced lifestyle coupled with his exposure to others who have chosen urban living will have been very different to my much quieter lifestyle amongst  private sector professionals and those raising young families in a rural idyll. Can these differing influences have affected our thinking so radically?

I would hazard a guess that we both like to think that we have considered the arguments and formed our opinions independently, but I wonder how true this is. I am fascinated by his view that there is no longer a a mainstream party with ideologies to the Left (socialist) in British politics as I have friends from the other side of the political spectrum who would claim that there is no longer a mainstream party with ideologies to the Right (capitalist). I will not get into a debate about these views here, although both polarised opinions can be well argued with carefully selected premises and hand picked facts. Personally I do not see the terms as particularly useful and am more depressed by the fact that none of the current crop of politician seems to offer what anyone really wants or to be different enough from each other to even offer a choice.

So, what is it that has influenced our political opinions? From reading the various blogs that argue each case and talking to those who feel passionately enough about their cause to have properly researched their recent history, I can only conclude that political views bear a remarkable similarity to religious conviction. Those who truly believe one way or the other are not going to be swayed by mere argument; they will always find a way to discount opposing views and be able to hold up a slew of carefully selected, salient facts to support their convictions and do down the opposition.

My friend has faith in his ideals; I do not. My political leanings are not aligned to one party or policy and I can and am still be swayed by new knowledge; my voting preferences are rarely decided too far in advance. I do not believe that I have been duped or that my views are extreme; neither do I consider that I am in full possession of the facts nor truly understand the potential consequences of some of the policies that I may be inclined to support. This is why I continue to try to partake in political discussions.

The exchange with my friend knocked my complacency but I now see this as a good thing. I have much to learn and will be happy to do so from him, but not solely from him; I still wish to understand the alternative view. I can see a dark side to a statist government and resent being compelled to contribute financially to so many national projects of negligible benefit to any other than the already powerful elite; I resent being told how to live my life, even if this is supposedly for my own good. Corruption and waste are rife in the public sector; whether the private sector can offer anything better is debatable so I have no easy answers. This will not stop me continuing to ask questions.

In politics, as in religion, we can agree to differ and move on. However little I may agree with my friend’s way of thinking, I absolutely respect his right to hold whatever views he chooses, so long as he does not try to force them on anyone else.

World cup England

Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 1

I was born and raised in Belfast, christened and confirmed in the Irish Presbyterian church that I attended from a young age. My parents were not regular church goers but sent my sister and I along to Sunday School each week. I embraced the various youth groups available in the church community joining Brownies, Guides, Crusaders, the Scripture Union and Bible Study groups. This was my social life for the majority of my youth.

As young children we accept what we are taught by our parents and what we absorb from the attitudes of our local community. I was taken along to the 12th of July parades in the city and enjoyed the bands and the spectacle. How I envied the girls of my age in their pretty, shiny dance dresses who could twirl and throw their sparkly sticks as they walked in front of the various Orange Orders. I never thought to question what any of it symbolised.

When I discovered that a couple living a few doors up from my parent’s house were Catholics I was quite shocked. To my knowledge I had never met a Catholic before. Some of the children in our road called them names that I did not understand. The names sounded fierce and I felt uncomfortable and puzzled by the unexplained hate. The couple had a boat and I once asked them if I could go out on it with them. They said yes but it never happened. Although there must have been Catholic students at the extra curricular music school that I attended for years I did not mix with them. I was not to get to know any Catholics until I went to university.

The friends that I made through my teenage years were linked through the various church youth groups that we frequented. I am still in touch with many of them today. Some talked openly about the faith that we were all now questioning but which I still accepted. It was a way of life as much as a belief. We would get together at the meetings, on organised trips away, at church concerts and at each others houses. We were young people having fun and enjoying each others company.

By the time I went to university I was questioning everything about my life but especially aspects of my faith. I was fascinated by what appeared to me to be the shady world of Catholicism and worried my mother by befriending a large family of Catholics who lived on the wrong side of town. There were sixteen children in the family, some married with children of their own. They introduced me to an underworld that I knew existed but had never experienced. I was intrigued.

It seems strange to think that we all accepted as normal being stopped and bodily searched before being allowed to enter the central shopping district in Belfast. Checkpoints could be set up on roads without warning and ID demanded at any time. Parts of the city were entirely blocked off and riots commonplace. I was frightened when I had to lie down on the floor of a bus when it was stoned and the windows broken as the driver tried to get us to safety through the crowd that had suddenly appeared to block his route. A girl who had gone to school with my sister was shot dead as she left church one Sunday evening. The father of one of my good friends was shot dead as he left work one evening in a case of mistaken identity. One of our teachers had lost a leg when the coffee shop she was visiting was blown up. A neighbour who was a policeman was shot but survived and recovered from the attack. The Troubles affected me in these ways but could somehow, largely be ignored.

The Catholic family that I befriended were much more closely involved. To my knowledge they were not members of any sectarian forces but they seemed to know a lot of people who were. They talked of a friend who was worried about a favour he owed because he had asked for a boy who had messed with his sister to be kneecapped. They laughed about leading the army on a merry dance through a community’s back yards as they smuggled those being searched for out through the front. This friendly, welcoming family offered me endless cups of tea and chatted away about the events I read about in the paper with a knowledge that should probably have frightened me. There was no bravado or boasting; this was their way of life.

I did not stay long in this environment. Welcoming though they had been, I knew that I did not belong and the alien culture lost the appeal of novelty in time. I had other avenues to explore with my new found student freedom but my eyes had been opened to a religious intolerance that I had blindly accepted. I was questioning the rights and wrongs of the whole Irish situation and finding no easy answers. There were none. My parent’s attitudes, as much as I could understand them, now seemed archaic.

A few old friends from my church were starting to talk about the good loyalists and the bad republicans. They were agreeing with the views of their parents and vociferously taking sides. I began to feel the first stirrings of despair that supposedly intelligent people could not consider alternative opinions. These young people were hell bent on perpetuating the issues that I saw as causing the Troubles in the first place.

I wanted out: out from the strictures placed on me by family expectation that I would conform; out from the potential condemnation of the still strong church community that so many both admired and feared; out of a a country that offered a warm welcome to those who appeared to be the same as them but a cold shoulder to any suggestion of change; out of the country that I no longer wished to be my home.

The God that I still believed in was a God of love, not hate. I did not wish to raise my future children in an environment that I now viewed as toxic. I was young, ambitious and felt no ties to this troubled place. I moved away.

English: The Shankill road, Belfast during the...