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Books: Picture of a city redeemed by its less harmful excesses

The Belfast Anthology edited by Patricia Craig Blackstaff Press pounds 20
In Belfast, it has to be said, the obstinate spirit of localism has given shelter to mediocrity and ministered to moods of rigid exclusion. But in literature there is an old critical maxim that you should have preferences but no exclusions, and in Patricia Craig's anthology, this maxim is delightfully evident.

Here a native Gerry Adams jostles for space with a visiting Graham Greene, while a former resident, Philip Larkin, tests his voice against that of a modern expat, Van Morrison. In some other parts of the world one finds local patriotism to a large degree modified or refined by travel or other external influences. In my home-town Belfast, however, obstinacy works its spell in - to quote Louis MacNeice - "the voodoo of the Orange bands / Drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster" and where stubbornness thickens prejudice to the consistency of coagulated blood. That Patricia Craig has recently returned to live in Northern Ireland after many years in London may be a sign to some that the inspissation is over. "I count myself lucky in my ancestry," she writes in her introduction, "in so far as it is half Protestant and half Catholic, enabling each strain in me to cancel out the other as far as belief is concerned ... If ever there was a natural atheist, I am sure I am it." Hitherto, Northern Ireland had not been much of a refuge for atheists, categorised as they tend to be as "Catholic atheists" and "Protestant atheists". Her compilation is that of an insider who knows what's what, and of an outsider who can evaluate with dispassion and wit. Hence her accommodation of so many unexpected non-Irish contributors, among them Andrew Motion, Ring Lardner Jnr, V S Pritchett, Paul Theroux, Michael Dibdin, P G Wodehouse and Max Hastings.

She draws on material stretching from the early 1600s to the present, and includes memoirs, poetry, fiction, history, local history, travel writing, letters and social studies - all building up a composite picture of a place known down the years as "the Black City", "Titanic Town", "Bigotsborough", and much ruder things. It charms and surprises, shocks and amuses, lures and transfixes as one turns the pages of a book whose cover - the interior of Belfast's past, a second-hand book market (now gone) - is as clever as its selections are edifying.

In her introduction, Craig refers to many familiar negatives: "backwaterishness", bigotry, tedium, unease with sex, "the puritanical ethos of both Catholicism and Protestantism, on top of a certain provincial uncouthness". She observes that some people native to the city, "succumbing to despair over its obduracy, inurbanity and atavistic thinking, took themselves away from it as quickly as they were able, only to find, like Brian Moore, that its hold on their imaginations was ineradicable".

In composing her literary picture of the city's atmosphere, exigencies and eccentricities, Craig, in a peculiar way, redeems it, making us giggle at its less harmful excesses, such as the songs mill-girls sang ("Sara Murray / Was a fool, / She married a man / Without a tool"), or Buck Alec, a docker/minder/bouncer who kept a pet lion with no teeth. According to George Fleming (1968), "Buck would carry on an act, much to all the children's enjoyment, of sticking his head between its jaws." Michel MacLiammir (1952) liked the place for "its fantastic practicability, its bleak, bowler- hatted refusal of the inevitable". Thackeray (1842) found it "hearty, thriving, and prosperous, as if it had money in its pockets, and roast- beef for dinner". Chesterton (1919) came across an "elfland" where a mother warned her children from a pond by saying, "Don't you go there; there are wee popes there". J G Kohl (1843) discovered that "no printing-press was ever brought into the city before the year of 1696".

Craig's anthology shows that Belfast has more than caught up in the publishing game, and has learned to lyricise its incorrigibilities with style and fulsomeness. In his Images of Belfast (1983), Robert Johnstone says: "If asked, large numbers of its citizens will profess to love the place. They do so with such alacrity that you begin to suspect they don't think you believe them."

These pages induce an easier understanding of what both ails and upholds Ulster. Some passages clutch at the reader with instant familiarity; for instance, Dennis Ireland's 1936 eyewitness account of a Belfast riot: "A green-uniformed inspector of constabulary snores exhausted in an arm- chair; another, too strung-up to sleep, drinks a whiskey-and- soda with the rapid jerky motions of a marionette. They have the job of cleaning up something that began before they were born, the impact of forces released by politicians long dead ... "

Among Belfast poets I esteem highly are MacNeice and Roy McFadden. I am glad to find them here in culverted spate, their confluence neat after 30 years. Here is the former in 1936: "A city built upon mud; / A culture built upon profit; / Free speech nipped in the bud, / The minority always guilty".

And the latter, just three years before his death in September: "While patriots infiltrate, / Plain citizens lack the language to prefer / A proper challenge at the barricades. / Who, they could say, goes where?"