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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
Mulling On Millies
by Aisling O'Biern
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I didn't have to physically go far for my endeavour to try to draw a parallel between the vernacular but derogatory term 'Millie', as removed from an urban industrial context with the type of language used by government agencies and developers to negotiate Belfast's post industrial landscape. I thought the project would involve a bit of legwork and description as illustration, necessitating some initial research in libraries, followed by time cruising Belfast surveying some former mill sites, in relation to current redevelopment. The 'on the street' research would also entail eyes wide open to spot examples of the stereotypical 'Millie' in or near these post industrial environs.
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The term 'Millie', a slang word prevalent in Belfast, is often used to donate teenage girls identifiable by their particular dress code and girlish, skittish behaviour. It is derogatory in that it stereotypes; judging on appearance and its focus is nearly always on working class people.
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It's origins lie in Belfast's mill industry, the term was used to describe female mill workers who in the 1030's would have constituted about three-quarters of the industries work force . No doubt the term was derogatory then too, but it was bound in with a working context. Even then it would have done nothing to elaborate on the harsh working conditions of the women it referenced.
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My initial strategy was to outline some former mill sites as they currently stand in relation to their redevelopment, whilst describing teenage girls in their vicinity that might be seen to fit into the stereotypical 'Millie' category. The city has plenty of examples of converted mills housing shopping or industrial units and young gum chewing girls in tracksuits or 'pelmet' skirts with colour co-ordinated 'hoodies'.
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The object of such cliché hunting would be to question the role appearance plays in labelling and language regarding redevelopment.
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Can a relationship be drawn between the derogatory terminology and fleeting judgements used in labelling someone a 'Millie' and strategies used by developers in relation to urban dereliction? What of the politics of gentrification that ignore and isolate the site from its original context and the misuse of language this entails?
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I was thinking of examples such Ewarts Mill on the Crumlin Rd. in North Belfast, a former utilitarian art deco giant of a building that sat right out onto the road offering readings as a monument to industry. It went into production in the late 1800's and was operational until the 1960's, an era that saw a huge overall decline in the industry.
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It lay derelict for many years, in the context of the depopulated, increasingly abandoned, post-industrial Crumlin Rd. with rumours constantly circulated as to its fate, until it was finally demolished in 1998 to make way for a shopping centre. In tandem with this many teenage girls of this and other degenerated working class areas of North Belfast are often subject to the slur 'Millie', fashion fitting them into the earlier cliched description.
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The gradual degeneration of the Crumlin Rd., (once one of Belfast's busiest Industrial thoroughfares), was tied into talk of conditions being ripe for regeneration. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive vested over 800 homes in the area with a view to redeveloping, dereliction had to precede regeneration . The need for redevelopment was let become visually, blatantly apparent.
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The level of need in North Belfast is well documented The issues are obvious in very visual terms to the outsider and this is reflected in the many reports published on the issue. The Department of Social Development sites the Crumlin Rd. as a high level target area in need of redevelopment. It is also listed by Belfast City Council in their 'Culture and Arts Development and Outreach Initiative' funding application forms. The mission statement accompanying these leaves no doubt as to role appearance plays in making Belfast an attractive and reputable place.
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'' 5.1) To ensure that Belfast is an attractive and welcoming city.'' and ''(5.2) To facilitate, develop, and support products, events and activities which will enhance Belfast's reputation as an enjoyable place to be.''
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The Cain Report describes the poverty as being 'multi dimensional'. The 'North Belfast Community Action Project', is also aware of the bad image that this city has been labelled with and the need to address it, taking a broader responsive approach, seeing the problem as both infrastructural and politicised.
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These observations in part predicated on internalised, urban self image show an awareness of how external perceptions of the city can be shaped where identity and appearance gets written into both the problem and prospective solutions. They are interesting alongside Laganside Corporations stated objective of making the River Lagan once again a focal point in the city, but this time as a leisure resource rather than industrial thoroughfare. If reports point to a diagnosis and treatment that relies to a degree on physical appearance, the danger is a scenario where symptoms rather than causes are used for prognosis. If the urban fabric is subject to these incomplete readings, what of its citizens?
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I headed with good intent to the Linenhall Library, Local History section, wanting to find references to mills and more importantly to that much-bandied term 'Millie'. I was still reluctant to commit it to paper without some academic reference to back me up. I found plenty of material to earnestly plough through, but no reference to the term 'Millie'. The task was not made any easier by the constant chattering from a clatter of bored schoolgirls sitting, but not studying at my table.
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As I was cursing them I resigned myself to the fact that I was also getting board wading through text and that I must content myself with purely vernacular references to 'Millie'. I decided it was time to pack up and look around as originally planned.
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Looking up and there it was, on my left a pile of books, testimony to Belfast's' industrial past and the harshness of the 6.am. - 6 pm. working class life. These books were in a local history section in a library, characters seemingly removed from their industrial context whilst Belfast was out there as ever surviving the rain and the post-industrial climate. On my right sat a posse of possible 'Millies', bored teenagers who would rather be otherwise engaged. Their uniforms were complete, leisurewear, hoodies, matching pink mobiles and stationary shored up with colour co-ordinated glitter motifs on t-shirts (pink) and a splash of noisy bling bling.
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I found myself angrily and self righteously muttering under my breath a few choice phrases as they yapped on. ''Wee noisy Millies'' was amongst my silent slanders.
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I left, armed with a few references realising that the mills, books and the 'Millies' weren't so much removed from their industrial contexts, rather they were being re aligned to new and equally difficult urban realities. These might be scenarios where catagorising denigrates language to mere derogatory labeling as opposed to a tool to investigate and question paired with knowledge and data as opposed to linen and ships as urban commodities. I later had to concede 'thanks 'wee Millies' for saving me from self righteous presumption and a lot of legwork in that dirty rain.
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Mulling On Millies
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