They know it is not an easy thing to do to challenge thugs, bullies and shadowy figures, but they find the grit and determination to at least try to find a way to improve their divided streets. It is a journey of anger, frustration and exasperation, but also of strength and bravery.
The dialogue is written in pure Belfast-speak and many of the exchanges between the women, the self-appointed big shots and disinterested youths are amusing in a ‘wait-a-wee-minute’, ‘catch-yourself-on’ kind of way. There were some chuckle-worthy moments - as when one of the Gogo girls complains about her "vangina" - which turns out to be her chest pains... but I must admit I found the relentless funny observations and self-aware stoicism eventually started to grate on me; as did the almost naïve approach of both author and protagonists… a woman in her 80s besting a former UDA member by effectively calling him a ‘wee naughty boy’? I’m not so sure reality would pan out so idealistically.
Tony Macaulay does maintain a degree of realism though, using incidents and graffiti messages and other references to maintain a feeling of tension. And, hidden amongst some of the groan-worthy humour there is much grass roots wisdom in the lines and between the lines too.
But, don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s laughs all the way. There are moments where the plot takes an unexpected turn, and, as I mentioned right at the beginning, it takes skill and writer’s courage to pull a surprise without harming the spirit of the story.
Jean is the stand-out character but the individuals in the supporting cast are strong too, and Macauley does make efforts to dig beneath the stereotypes on all sides…
Ultimately, this is a novel that works as a timely reminder that ordinary people can make things happen while idle politicians fail to work positively for the people.
That said, there is a fine line to tread between whimsy and humour in portraying dire situations (as in the movies The Full Monty and Brassed Off – glossy feel-good movies that use the awful poverty of ex-mining towns to the background scenery). As a more convincing comic-realist depiction of Northern Irish sectarianism I’d suggest Alan Bleasdale’s 1985 film No Surrender.
I’m aware I’ve been a little cynical in my review so in interest of fairness here is a quote from the author himself in September 2019:
“Well, [Belfast Gate] was a little flippant but I suppose the point is that we’re at our best in Northern Ireland when we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and when we’re at our worst when we take ourselves far too seriously. We really do have a great sense of humour; it’s quite a dark sense of humour and the book is full of that. Our sense of humour has gotten us through some very dark times. I truly believe we in Belfast could live without 30-foot walls separating us. And I think that anything we can do that takes us forward, imagine a future without walls dividing us is a good thing. With investment, regeneration, and jobs etc. in a way that makes it safe and prosperous in interface areas is what we need. We need leadership from Stormont to make that happen but I think that humour and warmth would certainly help us along.” (interview by By Conor O’Neill @ Culturecrushniblog © 2019)
Given that Stormount (the Northern Irish Parliament) dissolved in 2017 over an argument between the DUP and Sinn Fein, leaving the country effectively without a government, one can only hope that Macauley’s vision becomes a reality soon.
For my next book I stay on the island of Ireland and hop across the border to Northern Ireland’s much bigger southern neighbour; the Republic of Ireland (Poblacht na hÉireann).
In this pre-Brexit time while the ‘backstop’ Irish border is still being argued over I am able to pass easily from Belfast to this EU country via Intercity train. This goes direct from Belfast to Dublin Connely (Irelan’s imposing rail station). Second class is reasonable at €41 second class for a 2 hour journey and it takes me straight to my next destination – the capital city of Dublin with Charlie Savage a new (sort-of) novel by renowned author Roddy Doyle.