Nine days ago I found myself in Derry leaping about with joy in front of the massive mural of the lead characters from the brilliant Channel 4 show Derry Girls, being a deranged tourist fan girl. I’m obsessed with the show, which focuses on a group of riotous teenagers growing up with the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I love everything about it, and don’t even ask me to choose my favourite characters (OK — wee Clare and Sister Michael, but that in NO way diminishes my overall worship of the others).
The show works so beautifully because Lisa McGee’s writing is sharp, poignant and funny beyond belief but also because it has an inherent optimism. Like many, I shed a tear at the end of the last series, feeling the hope of the Good Friday Agreement. Later that day I felt emotional standing in front of the iconic gable wall in the Bogside which features in the show, with the famous sign “You are now entering Free Derry”. Little did anyone know that just a few days later the tragic words “Not in our name. RIP Lyra” would appear.
Less than 48 hours after I left Derry, having learnt about the peace process, violence broke out and the young journalist Lyra McKee was killed. Her funeral is today. Her murder sent the most visceral shock not just across Northern Ireland but into the Republic, where I was staying in Donegal. Everyone I came across was in disbelief and wanted to talk about it. The collective grief was genuine and raw on both sides of the border and the political divide — people spoke as though they had lost a family member.
I ended up in Belfast for Good Friday and did a tour of the city. I learnt more about the political situation in Northern Ireland in two hours than I had over 20 years in Westminster. The scars on both sides; the exhaustion of conflict; the gratitude for peace; the fear that still stalks people; and the fragility of the situation.
I was particularly struck by the vivid murals of such recent violence and the ominous “peace walls” that still separate Catholic and Protestant areas — they feel like borders. My guide joked dryly: “We can work and drink together but we can’t yet live together.” Everyone I met or had a drink with wanted the same thing — continued peace.
"One woman who lives in the North but works across the border in Donegal told me they were political ‘orphans’"
And there was an incredulity and rage that this respite could be shattered by Brexit. One woman who lives in Northern Ireland but works across the border in Donegal told me that they were political “orphans” — a pesky inconvenience whose genuine concerns about the Irish border and the Troubles were “confected” according to a bunch of “clueless, English politicians in London”.
It made me feel ashamed. How can it be that we fawn over American politics yet we seem to know, or care, so little about a wonderful, brave, proud place so close to us and which is meant to be a part of us?
The uplifting tale of Akram Khan, Curry House Kid
Akram Khan is one of our most celebrated dancers and choreographers. He performed at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and earlier this month won an Olivier award for outstanding achievement. But his journey into the arts as a young boy from a Bangladeshi family who ran a curry restaurant was not an easy one.
Khan has made an illuminating, personal and powerful documentary about his life and relationship with his family, called Curry House Kid (to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday). I was lucky enough to host an interview with Khan and it was fascinating to hear him be so candid about his struggles with his cultural identity.
His film explores complex themes that many children of immigrants can relate to, such as not feeling like you belong in either culture. He felt almost too “white” to fit in with his father’s aspirations for him to take over the business because he wanted to dance, yet he experienced horrible racist abuse. He recalls some pretty brutal experiences about how curry house workers were often the punchbags for drunken customers but they had to absorb it because, as his dad said, serving those people put food on their table.
But it’s also an uplifting story about the resilience of immigrants living in areas such as Brick Lane to fight prejudice, work hard and make their mark on British society. Which is exactly what Khan did.
*In all the fuss over Donald Trump’s visit to the UK, spare a thought for the Queen — she has to look after him even though One will be busy with great-granny duties. But our monarch has the classic excuse to stop him staying — renovations. We can all relate to that. Her Maj has given us the perfect phrase to suggest guests seek alternative plans — not tonight, the east wing is closed.