BOOK REVIEW / She was a lovely girl my daughter was: 'May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast' - Tony Parker: Cape, 16.99 pounds

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IT IS a shame that 'oral history' sounds like dental health, for it is a literary form as old and distinguished as Homer. But only in modern times have recording techniques been smart enough to let writers go around like photographers, shooting miles of tape, picking out the best bits, and offering them up as if they were free-flowing monologues. Books of interviews have the same kind of spontaneity that a plate of bacon and eggs has when someone slaps a glass box around it and calls it art. They seem formless, but we can sense the weight of patient craftsmanship that has gone into their composition.

Either way, it is a form that Tony Parker has got taped. In previous volumes he has captured the voices of soldiers, murderers, lighthouse operators, small-town Americans, big-town Russians and south Londoners. Now he has dangled his microphone in front of the people of Belfast.

It says something for the status of Northern Ireland in our political culture that Parker has been able to ignore so obvious a subject for so long. It is, as the first couple of pages show, a perfect place for his sort of eavesdropping. And it has been right under his nose all along, just as it is right under the noses of everyone else in Britain. But perhaps it is asking too much that we should be interested in reckless sectarian murder, entrenched religious discord and endless, endless human unhappiness, when we have the thrilling Newbury by-election to worry about, or the inspiring campaign for cheaper CDs.

But then, the people of Belfast themselves seem able to accommodate the extraordinary world in which they live. Even in the darkest moments, a chuckling Irish charm brushes aside the groans. Parker meets a bookseller, who greets news of a fresh bomb blast with a shrug, and chirps on about the oddities of his customers:

'It was only yesterday a woman came in and she said, 'Have you got a book called The Scented Veil?' I said, 'Who's it by?' and she said, 'I've no idea, it's the same person who wrote The Golden Lamp.' I said, 'Well you must have some idea what her name is, haven't you?' She said, 'Oh, no, I only remember the titles. You must know who I'm talking about though, she's very well-known, she wrote The Side of the Brook, Tempest in the Desert, City with No Name and a lot of other ones, you can't mean you've never heard of her?' I said, 'Look, it isn't me who's never heard of her, it's you: you've read her bloody books, if you'll pardon the expression. Why don't you go home and look up her name on the title page?' 'Oh,' she said, 'I can't do that, when I've finished them I always give them away to the hospital.' And you know what she said to me at the finish? She said, 'You can't be a very well-read person if you can't tell me the name of a well-known author like she is.' '

This is Tony Parker at his best: everyday anecdotes given a lyrical spin by his cultivated grooming of conversational tics. The book ripples along on the back of Ireland's trademark two-verb sentences: 'It's a fine afternoon now to be sure isn't it? . . . Just the one fillum you want to have developed is it Sir? . . . Oh, it is, Tony, it's terrible difficult . . . Well to be sure there's not much I can think of to tell you about myself so there's not.'

It all sounds gorgeously off-the-cuff, yet there is always in Parker's work a refined formal sense. The interviews are laid out in neat shapes: women, men, teachers, priests, social workers, soldiers, policemen and - saving the most sensational contributors till the end - terrorists. The first words of the book are cautious: 'I'm afraid'; and the conclusion is deliberately bleak: 'You've no proper knowledge of our history, and if you had, you'd surely understand why we feel the only thing left for us is to fight you to the bitter end.'

By the end we have a clear view of who is to blame: the British, the Irish, the church, the IRA, republicans, nationalists, loyalists, the other church, Rome, Dublin, Sinn Fein, the Army, politicians, the media, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.

Naturally, the theme is politics - the Troubles, if you're Protestant; the Struggle, if you're Catholic. This gives the book an uneasy, though inevitable, prod in the direction of warring arguments - Hello and welcome to Question Time - rather than everyday affairs. Parker stands well back, but can't resist the odd sly dig. The chapter 'Terrorists' is full of people saying that of course they're happy to talk, though they don't actually hold with the term terrorist, Tony. The British Army interviews are prefaced by various conditions, the last of which is 'that these conditions should not be mentioned.'

As a view of the ideological conflict, the book leaves us sadder but none the wiser. You read the lament of an impassioned Protestant about the bombings, and you think - bloody IRA, string 'em up, only language they understand and so on. And then you read the dignified words of a man whose daughter was shot by British soldiers, and you think - right, that's it, troops out, sure it's a scandal.

At times it is hard to read: so much pathos, so many deep and fresh wounds. But then you realise: the paramilitaries on both sides are not bitter because they are terrorists but terrorists because they are bitter. Almost everyone is driven by a personal vendetta - a brother killed, a father in prison. As one republican puts it: 'They've all stopped thinking. Everyone closes their eyes, puts their heads down and fights like drunken boxers in the ring. They're drunken because they've had so many punches to the head.'

But if the book induces in the reader a sense of helpless sorrow about the future (there are only two mixed Catholic-Protestant schools in Northern Ireland), it remains a precious work. Through the uncanny integrity of these dramatic monologues the spirit of the North moves with soft, haunted steps. Here is Sean Kelly, whose 18-year-old daughter, Linda - 'She was a lovely girl my daughter was' - went for a drive in a stolen car, and was shot at an Army checkpoint.

'The soldiers must have panicked, it's been said: so well yes, perhaps they did. I think I might almost have come to accept that and somehow learnt to live with it. I don't know, I think I might.

'But not with what happened a short time afterwards, I can't live with that. Something came out: it shouldn't have, but it was in one of the newspapers. Two months later, Neil Kinnock came over to Belfast for a visit, and one of the places he went to was the Army barracks where those same soldiers were. At the end of one the dining halls he went into - I'm not saying it was meant for him to see, and I'm not saying whether he did see it or not because I don't know - but up on the wall was a full-size cutout of a car, with bullet holes marked all over it. This newspaper published a photograph of it. Under the cutout is a big hand-lettered notice. It says: Vauxhall

Astra. Built by robots. Driven by joyriders. Stopped by 'A' Company.'

Nice one, lads.