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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Belfast Is Lovely
by Neal Alexander
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In the last few weeks - perhaps longer - a red open top bus bearing the legend 'Dublin Tours' has been doing the rounds on the streets of Belfast city centre. I've passed it along Tate's Avenue and it has passed me a few times in the University area. At first, these brief encounters caused me a fair amount of confusion. Had the driver simply become lost, taken a wrong turning somewhere near the M50 and found himself conveyed - via the new Boyne suspension bridge - into the heart of the Black North, where he was now trapped in a loop of one-way-streets and circulatory relays? Or had Dublin's alarming urban sprawl crept so far north that Belfast was now considered an outlying suburb which may nonetheless be worthy of a visit for the adventurous tourist? Closer inspection provided a much more prosaic explanation, for in the window of this 'Dublin Tours' bus could be discerned a white DIY sign advertising 'Belfast Historical Tours'. The bus itself is operated under contract by Lavelles Coaches on behalf of Worldwide City Sightseeing, who are, according to their website (www.city-sightseeing.com), "the world's largest open top bus company", operating in Australia, Canada, and across Europe. There is, it seems, a custom designed 'City Sightseeing Belfast' bus, so it seems fair to presume that the Dublin bus is either supplemental, helping to keep up with the demand for historical tours of Belfast over the summer months, or is serving as a temporary replacement while the other is in the garage - or wherever buses go when they are sick. On the one hand then, the Dublin bus can be seen as emblematic of a certain entrepreneurial ingenuity on the part of Lavelles Coaches, who are obviously shrewd enough to exploit the tourist boom of post-Agreement, post-millennial Belfast in a way that also links the city to the experiences of other European and world capitals. On the other, it's symbolic of Belfast's belatedness on this very scene, and as such serves as an implicit reminder of the city's ignominious exclusion from the lucrative Irish leisure tourism economy during the bad old days of the 'Troubles'. Indeed, while the violence, misery and general nastiness of that period of the city's 'living history' is now the great unspoken of contemporary tourism discourse, mentioned only in their commodified form as an essential part of Belfast's proliferating Black Taxi tours, the 'Troubles' still have a disturbing knack for making discursive reappearances and taking some of the shine off the city's new-and-improved self-image.
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Despite the unsurprising failure of Belfast's City of Culture 2008 bid, efforts continue apace to present the city as a rejuvenated, hip-and-happening, something-for-everyone metropolis that hasn't lost its small-town charm, and all manner of celebrity visitors are called upon to agree that Belfast really is lovely, mmmm. www.gotobelfast.com/ claims to be 'The Official Tourist Site for Belfast' and takes a fairly typical line. On the one hand, Belfast is bursting with "new, fresh and refurbished places to see and visit", a cosmopolitan city at the forefront of recent commercial and cultural trends. On the other, it is quaint and companionable, "a compact, walkable city with a human face. As you go sightseeing, you will encounter smiles of friendship". Which is nice, although it's probably still best to keep within sight of the panic buttons/information points recently installed in South Belfast (see Colin Graham's article in the last issue of The Vacuum). Smiles of friendship are hardly all that you'll encounter if you go walking with your camera and bum-bag on the Limestone Road of an evening. The site also quotes Rajesh Mirchandani of the BBC's Holiday programme, who helpfully remarks: "I came to Belfast to see if it was a cool place to spend a couple of days, and I've had as much fun here as any city I've been to. I've also learnt some stuff and there's fantastic scenery really close by, so for me it's a really well rounded place to spend a few days in". It's unclear exactly what "stuff" Mr Mirchandani managed to learn during his brief stay in Belfast - the right way to hold an RPG or simply a bit of 'living history'? - and, at times, he seems in danger of damning the city with faint praise ("I've had as much fun here as any city I've been to"). It may also be uncharitably pedantic to note that he did not simply come to Belfast "to see if it was a cool place to spend a couple of days", but was sent here as part of his contractual obligation as a presenter. U2's Bono, who is cited in Frommer's 'Overview of Belfast' (see www.tripadvisor.com/), is less equivocal but also ditheringly vague. "Belfast is really happening at the moment," he observes, "I'm looking around and the people are looking good, and the place is looking good". Right back at ye big lad. Belfast is also routinely enthused about by Sara Cox in the course of the now wearyingly predictable 'shouts out to the Shine Crew' that punctuate her breakfast show for BBC Radio 1.
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So Belfast is not only 'happening', it is entering into the popular consciousness of potential visitors in unusually 'positive' and effective ways. Unsurprisingly then, those with a stake in promoting this revised version of Belfast's image are keen to capitalise on the rhetoric of reinvention - Fodors.com describe the city as "a fascinating place in the throes of a major historical transformation" - and tend to cast Belfast as an upwardly-mobile (post)modern city shouldering it's way onto the world stage. So, in his brief introduction to the Summer 2003 edition of the Belfast City Pocket Guide, which is produced by the Belfast Visitor & Convention Bureau (BVCB) and available for free, Cllr Tom Hartley ("Failte, hello and welcome") asserts that "Belfast is fast becoming one of Europe's leading tourist destinations". The guide itself goes on to claim that "there are few cities in the world as rich in greenery and flora as Belfast", and observes that once you have availed of the excellent and efficient transport links to Belfast from Ireland, Britain and beyond, "you won't find an easier city in the world to get around". Compact and bijou, Belfast is nonetheless a world-beater. Not only is it "the perfect place to relax", brimming with golf-courses and "sparkling new shopping centres", Belfast is also home to "a pulsating club scene to rival any in Europe" - "if you can't have a good time in Belfast, you can't have a good time". Which adds a further sting to my recurrent refusals at the doors of Milk and La Lea - apparently I can't have a good time because I'm wearing trainers. Opposite Cllr Tom's comments is a photo of, and quote from, that most ubiquitous of contemporary globe-trotters, Michael Palin, who nearly lets the cat out of the bag when he avers: "In the midst of all the problems the vitality of the city has survived intact. It's a place I'm always pleased to return to". This is the sort of thing that might make the good Councillor, who is Chairman of the Tourism & Promotion of Belfast Sub-Committee, break into a flustered sweat. That's quite enough about the problems now Mr Palin, I'm sure we're all sick of hearing about that now. It's the "vitality of the city", as you quite rightly say, that's the thing. Could you not stick to that like a good man? The Pocket Guide does a good line in 'vitality' and, to be fair, provides a very serviceable guide to the city's pubs, clubs, restaurants, and arts venues if you can ignore its more vacuously celebratory overtones.
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Belfast also now has a 'Welcome Centre' ("Failte, hello and welcome"), located on Donegall Place near Boots, which serves as a sort of hub for the city's tourist industry, integrating an information desk and ticket sales office with an extensive gift shop selling everything from upmarket items like linen napkins and crystal ware to the best of Irish kitsch. My personal favourites are a thong decorated with green shamrocks and fringed with white lace, a genuine Blarneystone in a small cardboard box - "to bring you the luck of the Irish" - and a customised Belfast City 'Sporting Yo-Yo' (made in China), the packaging for which promises: "This Sorting Yo-Yo Brings You Happy Time!" This forthright embracing of all things kitsch, in which 'authenticity' is commodified and infinitely reproducible, accords well with the way in which the 'new-and-improved' Belfast is remaking itself in the image of the globalised everycity of chain stores and sparkling palaces of consumption, strip-lit wine-bars and gated communities. Such an upwardly-mobile milieu is geared towards commercial expansion and investment, but has little time for any deeper, sustained efforts at social and cultural restructuring. Late capitalism has arrived and is doing nicely thank you very much, augmenting its multi-national corporate character through a shrewd manipulation of local knowledge and character. Hence the proliferation of 'historical' tours (leaving every 60 minutes) and the piece of pink and white nougat offered for sale at the Welcome Centre as 'A Gift from Belfast' because it was made in Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory on the Castlereagh Road. These are, of course, the sour thoughts of a crabbed and incorrigible old cynic who is sadly behind the times in his inability to accept the redemptive truth that Belfast is new, Belfast is now, Belfast is lovely.
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Belfast Is Lovely
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