Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is coming on in leaps and bounds. New building complexes, new apartment blocks and the first complete term of a new devolved power-sharing Government (since power was first devolved in 1998) have all appeared, as if over-night, in Belfast. However, we are in some ways the same as we always were. We are not still searched when we go into shops in the city center, but nor are the days of violence behind us. We are better, we’re just not quite there yet.

The threat of violence in Northern Ireland is still a reality, as the pictures conveyed around the world of the rioting in the Short Strand this year show. However, rioting in Northern Ireland is different to other places. The old joke runs that we have 5 seasons; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and marching season. Northern Ireland is a nation of people determined to march their ‘traditional route’ come hell or high-water and other people determined to stop them. This comes to a head in July each year, with the Orange Order parades on the 12th. Some love them, but on the 12th this year I watched as the men marched their ‘traditional route’ and my heart broke. We are a young country, we are tethered to Britain for better or worse and we struggle on. A fledgling country, which is hit over the head with a hammer every single time someone demands to march. It is not culture, whichever side is marching. It is stubbornness made flesh.

[aesop_image img=”” credit=”Jill Luke’s mobile phone” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Northern Ireland’s Castlewellan Forest Park.” captionposition=”left”]

However, people riot for reasons other than because of the season. For example, there is that old stalwart ‘recreational rioting’, in which people trash their communities in the name of fun. We must also acknowledge the fact that the rioting this year was in the Short Strand, an area of enormous economic deprivation. Northern Ireland suffers from an almost incredible lack of investment. There are people who live in extreme poverty on our doorsteps. There are no jobs and many can see no future for themselves. Sectarianism plays its part but both frustration and boredom have roles too.

Whilst this is a feature on the Northern Irish calendar, it by no means dominates society. The majority of people here live peacefully. We have an excellent education system and some of the plushest countryside you could wish for. Generally speaking, people are proud to come from ‘Norn Iron’, albeit in a reserved way. It is also worth mentioning that people from my generation are largely ignorant of the suffering that our country went through.

Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of the Troubles. To a country of approximately 1.5 million people, this is a huge number. People deal with it in different ways. Some want endless inquiries. Others want to draw a line under it. But I have many friends who have no idea of what happened here. Indeed, when a group of Swedish students came to school and asked us in hushed tones about how we would feel about the ‘peace walls’ coming down, I was standing beside a close friend. He looked at me, I looked at him, and dripping with style he announced “I have never even seen a peace wall [1. For the record, a peace wall is a large wall between a Catholic and Protestant community over which missiles are often thrown, intended to make both communities feel safer. It often does the opposite].” This is often the case, the middle classes in Northern Ireland have a very different understanding of our society than those who live at “inter-face areas”, almost all of which are working-class. I have Catholic friends and Protestant friends, we go to gigs together, we go to the cinema, we hang out at each others houses, we keep each other going about our religions and we have never seen each other differently because of it. The same Swedish people informed us that they had been told not to wear green or orange in case they offended someone. This patronizing view of the people here still makes me prick with anger. We are not savages, we are not children. That view of the situation is ridiculous.

Part of why Northern Ireland is moving forward is the political system. My politics class charted the local Assembly elections this year with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical. We predicted great things happening in the city, rumors of power changing hands and stagnating parties suffering. And then the election happened. And everything stayed exactly the same. Whilst that is not strictly true, for example the Alliance Party (progressive liberals) made fair gains, things all stayed fairly dormant. Our system is not perfect; we have convicted terrorists, open bigots and a single person from an ethnic minority in Government but we have survived an entire term without anyone storming off. Whilst in a Western Democracy that should be par for the course, in Northern Ireland is was a genuine source of delight. We survived. We passed laws. People shook hands and sat in the same room as one another. Improvement.

Northern Ireland is a beautiful place, but it is a work in progress. There are those here who would drag us back to the dark days of fear and political deadlock. But there are also those whose great passion it is to move us further forward, to bring investment and lasting peace to “our wee country”. There is an affection and local pride here that I genuinely think is enough to overcome barriers placed in our way both by our past and present. We have too much to lose by regressing and so much to gain by moving forward.


So come visit! Take a trip round the murals, try some Guinness, we promise you’ll have good craic. We are a country of outstanding beauty, peace and friendliness. You’ll love it here.


The Ballad of Racer Ten

Like jotting words and phrases down on some diner napkin we hope to turn into some lyrical opus; some things just take a little time. It often isn’t clear until we step back and try to see the complete picture. We can be left with an image of the entire puzzle but lack the pieces, while other times we’re left with a lot of pieces that just don’t fit. I’m a big purveyor of this sort of ideology; that sometimes life can take a little time to work itself out. The issue of “fate” is a dicey topic – some believe that we follow a predetermined course in which you merely ‘go through the motions’, while others feel that if fate truly exists, all we have to do is lie in bed and wait for life to come to us.

I’m not talking about the big picture at the moment; I’m not looking at the complete puzzle. I’m merely taking a peak into one of the many pieces that make that picture, a small fragment of an existence that is far from complete. While some say that nostalgia is overrated, I tend to savor those moments – the “melodies and memories”.

1997, Hong Kong
Hong Kong isn’t a bad place at all. Like Singapore, it is predominantly a consumer driven economy – if you’ve got the money to spend, they’ll have things you’ll want to buy. My budget was extremely limited, leaving me with the choice of nice warm meals or as many CDs I could possibly procure in one overseas trip. Needless to say, I wound up with a personal record of 25 CDs in about a week worth of trips to Tower and HMV. Hong Kong isn’t exactly a Mecca for independent music so I couldn’t get punk rock records from mom and pop stores. Unless I wanted the latest Canto-pop single, I’d have to pay the ridiculous prices that such worldwide chains charge – besides, I was getting used to all those cold chicken dumplings anyway.

Amidst all the foolish, reflex purchases (anyone want a copy of Home Grown’s Act Your Age?), I found a real gem. I’m not a big fan of compilations but the one compilation that remains a favorite of mine is One Foot Records’ Check This Out! Vol. 1. Among the raw punk, rock goodness (great bands like Pep Rally, Funbox, Lick 57’s, and The Tie That Binds) was an exceptional track titled “Breathe”. Like the first time you see your favorite artist take the stage, the feeling and excitement was unparalleled. At the time, it was unexplainable, I did not know why the song was so great or why Racer Ten had quickly become an artist I was dying to find out more about. So like any eager beaver I set out and went through every available resource (in Asia) I could go through to find their debut full length. And like most previous ventures in the Asian continent, my quest was most humbly brought to an end without satisfactory results.

Listen to: Racer Ten – “Breathe”

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In effect, they wrote all the songs I wanted to write.

They provided some meaning, some understanding to why some things were the way they were. Why maybe all I really need to do in life is put my best foot forward and that it isn’t always about being first in line (and why a certain Lori G. would rather date some chunky, overweight kid than me).

Strangely enough, a few weeks after I found the CD at a record store I received an intriguing package in the mail. It was in fact, the same Racer Ten CD. How about that? I just remembered that awhile back I had slipped money into an envelope and sent it off to Alberta, Canada. Due to my lack of patience and confidence in the postal system, I didn’t think twice about picking up a copy in a record store knowing one was on the way already. (Current copy count: 2)

At the time it was honestly quite strange – a life I had only seen behind television screens became a reality for me. American high school was in fact, what is seen on TV shows and teen movies. There were bullies, cliques, extremely good looking girls, lazy students, pep rallies, awful football teams and Friday night parties with no alcohol. And that last one really bothered me, the transition from living in a country where there is (in reality) no real enforced drinking age to one where you can buy a gun and drive a car before getting drunk was something new. I was an impressionable, naïve, open eyed, optimistic teen who endured the days and wrote them down at night.

Summer 1999, Jakarta
The summer before college, a time for reflection, a time where young men prep themselves for the most important educational phase of their lives … yeah, right. The only thing on the mind of a heterosexual, semi educationally inclined B+ student going to college is girls, girls and whatever girls are left. Buoyed by lascivious tales and Penthouse forums, plans for an all out assault on hapless freshmen girls were in the works. A buddy of mine had the inside scoop; his older brother had been entrenched in the front lines for several years now and shared with us intelligence and info on the enemy. We were set; he was going to take his chances out East in Rochester while I decided to try my hand in California.

Somewhere in between discussing college girl etiquette and realizing that my buddy already had a girlfriend, I saw that I had two copies of Racer Ten’s Melodies and Memories. Like a Good Samaritan, I felt like sharing this treasure and decided to pass along a copy to my Rochester bound friend. A move I would live to regret?

[aesop_image img=”” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Racer Ten’s ‘Melodies & Memories’. Released in 1996 on OneFoot Records.” captionposition=”left”]

Fall 1999, Stockton, CA
Ah … college. The time and place where throngs of young adults engorge in a weekly diet of beer and pizza, late night partying and occasional book browsing. Somehow, my roommate ended up being a Norwegian guy, a cool fellow, 6’7 volleyball player who on most occasions went to class everyday forgetting his books. Aside from discovering that 95% of what my buddy’s brother taught us didn’t work, the first year really bent preconceptions and preconceived notions about institutional education. For me, it really was about learning that life does not come to you; in fact, it almost tries to pass you by. You really, really have to go for it.

Unfortunately for my Racer Ten CD, my roommate could no longer tolerate the all night partying and general loudness our hallway was known for. Understandable considering that he had to get up at the crack of dawn for volleyball practice. So with him moving out, I had a lot more space to myself (the room was much, much cleaner too). The day he moved out I spent most of it in class and when I returned, I noticed that there was a gathering of dust in the shape of the stereo where it once stood. I didn’t think it would be a problem, I’d just have to buy a new stereo – until I saw the jewel case to Melodies and Memories lying on the table, open and empty.

I wasn’t in high school anymore; I had grown up a little and moved on. And for some strange, inexplicable reason I said to myself, “It must be in the stereo he took, I’ll get it later”.

That moment ranked up there with other notable terrible ideas like New Kids on the Block releasing a gangsta rap/hip hop album and Glitter. Nevertheless, later become months and when I went over to his apartment to finally retrieve it, he had no idea he had it and no idea where it went. As I staggered through his pile of ear piercing, head ache inducing Euro-pop CDs, I slowly came to the depressing notion that it was lost forever.

Spring 2001, Stockton, CA
You learn a few important lessons when you join a fraternity. Among the things you learn are that alcohol is not always your friend and in the case of you waking up next to someone, well, undesirable, the best course of action is to run. In all seriousness, when you go to a relatively small college your fraternity house becomes a focal point of social events. People are always around and there is either someone acting like a dumbass or someone who is about to. Privacy and serenity becomes a priceless commodity and it is not out of the ordinary to see people up and leave just to get away for awhile. While some were able to go home for the weekend, escape to their significant other’s abode or just disappear into the countryside, I was several oceans away from home.

I sought refuge in music. In the music I went to see, the music I bought to hear and the music I inspired to write. While I came across a host of new musical inspiration from an expanding genre interest, there was still one sentimental longing to find that one release, that one soundtrack of days gone by. By then, Racer Ten had called it quits and gone their separate ways. They released another, almost as formidable full length titled The World of Tomorrow and left an indelible mark on a certain, one time naïve, open eyed kid. To my surprise, their website was still online – replete with merchandise and purchasing info. A few weeks before my return home, I slipped a nice bill into an express package to Canada. I hoped that it would reach me before I left but like Corey Haim’s Dad professing his son was Oscar worthy – it just wasn’t going to happen.

So as I jetted across the globe towards third world destitution, my prized Racer Ten package was taking its leisurely trek to Northern California. To make matters worst, the person who sent the package decided that since I sent him , he’d give me two copies of each release. (Current copy count: Melodies and Memories – 4, The World of Tomorrow – 2) You reach a certain breaking point after this much disappointment.

2002, Jakarta
In retrospect, two years has made a significant difference in my life. I still think that I’m optimistic and open eyed, but I don’t think I’m as naïve as I used to be; but I’m not the only who’s changed. The world in its entirety has and personally, if I were put back into that very first class during senior year in high school with what I know now – I’d have done everything differently.

“I do not regret the things I have done, but those I did not do.” – Empire Records

Looking back there are many instances at which I wish I had done something else. So in reality, that quote is right – I did do something, so I don’t regret not doing anything, it’s just in some cases I did the wrong thing.

The thing is, I did get myself another copy of Racer Ten’s Melodies and Memories – I actually got in touch with Sean of Racer Ten fame and through his kindness, he sent me a copy of each. Funny how these things work out – who knows, maybe I’ll get all the pieces I need to finish this puzzle someday and things just might work out in the end.

Final copy count: Melodies and Memories – 5, The World of Tomorrow – 3.

Listen to: Racer Ten – “Blisters”

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