Sitting in Bob Miller’s kitchen looking at his map I thanked him for agreeing to do the walk with me. Bob told me that when I first got in touch with him he thought that the walk was connected to the Troubles but then he also understood that it was about biography and so his map reflects both.
I’m very close to the University in lots of ways and my own personal borders are very tightly circumscribed really.
The walk we take starts at his family home in Belfast and he will take me around the spaces and places that are important to him that also reflect his work, family history and the history of the area.
Bob tells me:
the little orange squares are where there have been incidents to do with the Troubles that I’ve personally known about or experienced or have been in fairly close proximity. And you’ll see the blue is the track around the Botanic Gardens up to where we used to live and the first house we bought and then down by the first place we lived which is the flat that Queen’s had and then sort of around the university.
Fig.1. Professor Robert Miller’s Map
The map is fairly detailed and the walk will focus upon borders and identity. It looks like an interesting mix of Bob’s family and academic history as well as a biography of place, conflict and neighbourhood, centred around the Botanic Gardens.
A leading biographical sociologist both in the UK, Europe and internationally with a long history of doing biographical research, Bob tells me he taught a course at Queens University called Biography in Society
A couple of years ago I had some mature students in the course and it’s a social change course it’s where the people do a biography of their family, family history and we were talking about the Troubles and several of the younger students said ‘gosh, was it as bad as that’ and myself and the other mature students were just astonished ‘what do you mean’? How could you possibly not know about this? Then it dawned on us that their parents hadn’t really talked to them about it, it had all happened before they were born.
Bob tells me that around the University was a fairly peaceful area but nevertheless “quite a lot happened. Yet compared to the working class areas particularly in West Belfast it just pales in comparison, but even here, as you’ll see, there’s quite a lot of little orange stars”.
What was emerging in the conversation with Bob about the map were the connections between his own biographical borders, the relationship to the university and ‘the Troubles’ especially in relation to risk and belonging. He had lived in the area more than forty years and said that he tried to organise the walk chronologically, starting “with the older stuff and work our way up to more modern”. Walking and talking with Bob around the University quarter, the three houses he had lived in and the Botanic Gardens reinforced my earlier experiences of using this as a method for biographical research: that walking is relational, it can also be revelatory and it is absolutely embodied; taking a walk with someone in this way engages the thinking, sensing, feeling and attuning body.
Our first stop on the walk was Bob’s garden. He tells me that in relation to identity and borders his walk may best be portrayed by concentric circles and the garden is the innermost circle.
House, Home and Neighbourhood
Fig.2. View of the Communal Garden from Bob’s Kitchen
It’s a communal garden..it was already a communal garden when we moved in. It’s actually what attracted us to here and so there’s probably about five or six houses that actually use it and the rest might occasionally come in but it’s, that’s our communal fire pit with a couple of Christmas trees I stuck in there and lit a couple of days ago which I’ll have to take out and throw in the trash now. We often have bonfires here in the summer. Yes, various people work on the garden but probably me more than anybody else.
Fig.3. Side entrance to the garden between the houses
And originally when we moved in there wasn’t a gate there and so this area was used as a place where a lovers’ lane and Helena, who was the lady of the house, said before she let her kids come out and play during the day she’d have to come out and make sure there were no condoms lying around the ground. So a gate went in.
Fig.4. A Favourite Tree in the Communal Garden
See the tree there? See the way that the branches are bent? That’s caused by the weight of my kids and their friends climbing on it when it was smaller. So I’m very attached to the tree in the garden.
Fig.5. Bob Miller in Communal Garden.
Bob continues to describe the garden and I take a photo of him in it and he reflects on the need to be ‘diplomatic’ when you live communally.
I put this up in the autumn and take it down in the spring because it gets in the way you know and the idea is you don’t want to encroach too much into your neighbour’s space you know but they like the birds.
Yes, yes the birds they really come in. There’s well that’s a robin up there but we get goldfinch and three different kinds of blue tits. And squirrels which are lurking down there waiting for us to go away so they can come and steal the peanuts. And we’ve had a lot of fun here over the years, all our kids were little at the same, our sons and there were some others. Oh, oh I’ll show you something just over here. We found this some years later after we’d moved in.
Fig.6. A history of childhood: etchings made by children over the years in the brick
You see these? 1939, 1931 and the kids have been hanging around out here and scratching.
Bob went on to describe some of the neighbours and the issues around student and multiple occupancy residencies.
A is the person that’s been living here longest, she moved in in 1945 with her parents, she’s 81 now. That one at the very end and E is probably the second oldest resident, she was here before us and now we’re the third and there’s always a bit of a hassle because when houses go on the market, who your neighbours are going to be and one thing a couple of them have gone over to houses of multiple occupancy but they can’t get planning permission for that any more, they finally woke up about that, so one of the worries at one time was that they’d gradually go over to students and you end up with just a party. But they can’t do that now and we’ve gotten very good at the university with numbers you can ring if students are misbehaving and there are noise abatement people and we’ve gotten very good at putting pressure on the students, training them if they cause trouble.
It’s great in the summer when you get good weather and particularly when the kids, our kids were young and the other people had young people you’d be sitting here getting the sun and things and on a weekend. I’d say ‘well let’s barbecue’ and at that time there was a lot of renovation going on which meant lots of skips with wood for our bonfires. Nowadays, with the depressed housing market, it is much harder to locate skips with wood for burning. And so we’d get a car and go down and there were skips full of wood and have a big bonfire and put them on the coals.
And the barbecue pit itself used to be the outside had granite kerbstones and cobblestones and sort of was cobblestones and they announced, the Council announced they were going to asphalt it all over and the weekend before they did it we (All of the households who shared the garden)took up a bunch of the kerbstones and the cobbles and built the barbecue pit. Our most communal activity ever.
We put our coats, hats and gloves on, the weather was cold and started out from the house.
Fig.7. The Botanic Primary School.
Across the road from the house is the Botanic Primary School. Bob tells me that both his kids went there, that postgraduates at Queens ‘from foreign parts often come with their family usually of an age where their kids are young and so they end up sending them there’ and that it is the only school in Northern Ireland that has a qualified English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, with twenty-two different nationalities.
It’s incredibly popular, it wasn’t quite as mixed as that when our kids were there but even then it was quite mixed ‘Mixed schooling’ in N.I. refers to Protestant & Catholic children attending the same school. Botanic Primary with its many nationalities and many religions other than Christianity is really mixed.
Bob shares a memory of when the kids were small and the school would have fund-raising events where
you bought little tickets and each of the mothers brought in a specialist dish..they were doing like their specialist stuff and it was really great. And I asked the headmaster recently would he ever do it again and he said they can’t anymore because legally they were liable if anyone got food poisoning or something so they had to stop it. I like living across from a school compared to living across from just houses.
The next stop on Bob’s map was the Botanic Gardens a few steps away from the School and his home.
Fig.8. The Botanic Gardens
We really like the park, we’ve always lived around the park so even when we first came you know it’s quite an amenity and it’s more interesting than most parks because its history was it was a Botanic Gardens and so it has a great variety of plant life in it and they have a lot of events in here which we go to. Which is the best way to go I wonder? Probably this way but just there that building there is the sports centre, University Sports Centre.
Fig.9. University Sports Centre housing the gym and pool
After we’d been here about I don’t know, six or seven years I realised I’d better start going to the gym or something, but ever since then we both go, but me in particular, probably five days a week I’m there and particularly when I was working because of the stress. A really good way to unwind is to do something physical…it’s like having your own private gym and pool.
Bob pointed out “the little-arched place there’s an extension now, but the original old entrance. There was a guy who was a student of law but also was in the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment and he was assassinated as he was going into the sports centre”.
He tells me this is a theme that will be developed as we walk around the route he has mapped out.
Fig.10. Walking in the Botanic Gardens
Talking and walking through Botanic Gardens I learnt that the Gardens are very close to Bob’s heart and family history and all three houses he has lived in with his family surround the park.
We’ve been living in that house, oh let me think, thirty-four or thirty-five years, since 1981 Thirty-five years it’ll be this year and some of the trees and things I realise are actually larger, like that I think is a redwood. Yes, we only realised that it has suddenly gotten quite big you know and realised what it was.
I asked if the park is a central point in relation to the three houses Bob had lived in.
“It is, it is” pointing to his map Bob said
and one house is there and one house is there and we’re there you see so it’s almost in the centre of the triangle and it’s just like when we were talking there it occurred to me, in fact, we’re clustered more around the park than we are around the university. I’ve always sort of thought we’re near the university but in fact, it’s the park. I think if we cut up this way, you know we’ve lived here for so long that when the kids were little and things we had a completely different relationship to the park than we do now.
He tells me “the first house we bought I would cut through the park every day walking into work”.
I was enjoying listening to the birds in the trees who were quite vocal after the rain and Bob tells me that the “grey squirrels have started to move in and we didn’t have them till a couple of years ago and now they come and they rob our bird feeder which I quite like to watch the squirrels but they’re getting to where they’re eating a bit too much of the birdseed”.
The next landmark in the park for Bob is the Palm House and the Tropical Ravine.
Fig.11. The Palm House
Fig.12. View of the Tropical Ravine behind renovation hoarding
Fig.13. Poster of Tropical Ravine.
It is basically a greenhouse that’s designed for tropical plants from Victorian times and they’re doing a major renovation because it’s you know it needs it, but when we first came here because we came from Florida if we got a bit homesick we’d go and walk slowly up and down the Tropical Ravine [laughs]. Because it was like thirty degrees centigrade and high humidity like ‘oh, this is like home’ you know.
They used an image from the park, the view of the Palm House and University for their Christmas card one year.
that’s the University over there and there was one light on which I imagine, or I was hoping because it was about five o’clock on Christmas Eve, that this is somebody who left their office, isn’t actually in their office, but left their light on and we used it for our Christmas card the next year. Because it had snowed and there was snow and then there was like one light on in the University.
Arrivals, Beginnings and Identity
Bob tells me he arrived from Florida to Belfast in 1972, forty-four years ago with no plans to stay. He said he was recently reflecting on his changing identity He had not wanted to stay in Florida as he wasn’t that impressed with the department and he had an opportunity to go to Belfast and took it, even though it was at the height of the Troubles.
The first day I started at graduate school there was a guy there and he was their best PhD student for years and years and he’d just recently finished his PhD maybe the year after and they were going around, ’He’s got a job and where is it? [Regional State College] and I was thinking to myself, ‘Is the best I can hope for [Regional State College]?’ and so when I got a chance to come over here it was, you know, I took it and Twy was quite happy to come over as well.
That was the plan, to work on the research project, do the PhD and then apply for jobs in the States and have this different background but then after I had been here a year a lectureship came up and I applied and to my astonishment I got it, I was twenty-five years old.
We went back the second Christmas, to bring some data back and stuff and I went down to [town where his graduate university is located] and met two of my people who were still at the graduate school and they said ‘what are you doing’ and I said ‘I’m a lecturer in sociology now’ and one of them said ‘is that sort of like a TA’ and the other guy who had lived in Europe kind of went ‘no, it’s a bit more than a TA ‘[laughs] you know and yes a proper, permanent, tenure track job as they would say in the States.
We are walking past the rose gardens at this point.
Fig.14. Rose garden
The roses are all cut you know this is the rose garden. It’s this way. There are a lot of memories all around here you see from the kids when they were young.
Fig.15. Tree-lined path
My eldest son fell off a tree over there, right up there and almost impaled himself on a stick. OK, yes and another time I was walking him to school and somebody went by us on a bike really fast and came just like could have hit us you know.
Bob later said that he ‘was thinking about how many disasters that could happen in our lives are missed just by blind luck’.
I tell Bob I was thinking about current academic identities in relation to the one he has inhabited for the last forty-four years in the same University and same neighbourhood of around one square mile. A lecturer at twenty-five years to retirement. He answers, ‘Yes, yes’.
I never had a mentor, not really because the fellow that brought me here was a professor at State University and he went to the UN on the Population Division. He was a Brazilian/Japanese and he probably would have been a mentor but then he was off the scene. And doing the PhD, in fact, the PhD was quite slow coming because the project took up a lot of time and you know being a new lecturer. (Later Bob tells me ‘he gave me a wonderful opportunity that changed my life immensely for the better’).
I ask Bob if he was also teaching at that time.
He answers me telling me that he probably had the most expensive PhD fellowship the ESRC had ever granted because he learnt Sociology on the project whilst also doing his PhD. He had in fact been a Chemistry major as an undergraduate who switched to Sociology at the last possible moment and who then had to take whatever courses were available in the Sociology department, which happened by chance to include Demography and Sociology of the Family. These were core specialisms of State University and were instrumental in his acceptance on to their graduate programme.
Then Bob met Tanaka,
if I hadn’t taken a particular course that was being given by him there I wouldn’t have known him at the time. He was looking for somebody to work as a research assistant here and my life wouldn’t have been the same at all, where I would have ended up God knows!
The Early Years
Fig.16. Housing near the University
When I was an undergraduate I loved it because there’s always people around if you want to do something, just go, there’s always somebody who wanted to, you know basically fuck off [laughs].
This all would have been family housing and then it became very popular with professionals and now it’s more half professionals/half students. At one time the prices skyrocketed and we did very well because when I get to our old, our previous house I’ll tell you about that.
So we’ve been here for so long you can see a lot of changes in areas. When we moved people were saying ’You’re on the wrong side of the park’ because it was in the time the Troubles were going on. This side was out of the Troubles mostly, that side wasn’t and more close so there was a bit of ‘what happens you know if things just get worse and it sort of degenerates’ but it never did.
The house Bob and his wife first bought did not have a garden and so in 1981 after the birth of their children, they moved to the current house.
because we knew the people living in it and we’d seen the communal garden scene in action and thought ’Well I really like that, I think it would be good for me’, I like that sort of communal arrangement.
I asked Bob about the stress of living in a conflict zone especially through the 1970s and 1980s
Yes, you became used to it, the first couple, the worst, the first year and a half was always the worst then after that it gradually died back.
He tells me:
but you’ve got to get numb to it in a way. I remember that first year and a half or so when you’d leave Northern Ireland it was actually almost it was a physical sensation of being lighter when you got out and it was a sort of paranoia of things, something that you know you just might be where a bomb goes off or someone might mistake you for somebody else or you could give somebody offence.
Fig.17. Risky Places
This is where I wanted to show you, this is now a restaurant but at one time it belonged to Queen’s and the IRA liked to set booby-traps and there was a vacant house here which belonged to the university. They got into it and they planted a bomb that would go off when the doors opened and then they rang the RUC with a fake tip-off saying there were weapons being hidden in the house. So the police would come and search it and they would catch the police, but before the police got there a gas meter reader was going around checking the gas and he was blown up. It used to be the chemistry building over there, there was a guy working in the lab and there was an explosion, there was a crash, a shoe came through the window, guess what was in the shoe? A foot.
Bob had a lucky escape in the same incident.
It was a summer day or it was about you know May/June. I woke up early like you do sometimes in the summer, you know you wake up early and I was full of energy and I thought ‘I’m up, I’ll go to work early’ and when I walked in, I used to walk down and cut down this street and the bomb went off at about five minutes past nine which would be just about the normal time I’d go down the street. By then I was in my office. So you had this free-floating paranoia all the time.
An emerging theme was getting used to the Troubles, accommodating and negotiating the risk. A PhD student of Bob’s had been born in Northern Ireland, but had gone to the States shortly after the onset of the Troubles and had come back after twenty years absence to do her PhD.
She was amazed about how people took the Troubles as routine and she noticed things like Catholic mothers would teach their kids not to, they would try to teach them Irish but they also taught them not to speak Irish when they were in town and not to say things like not to curse using things like ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ because that would see them as Catholic or, when you had a bomb scare, people don’t run, people just put down whatever they are doing in a shop and just sort of walk briskly out. Whereas, if you had a bomb scare in Oxford Street, people go nuts you know, they’d be running around panicking.
These are the everyday adaptations.
When my son went to Grammar School in the centre of town, the first day he came back with the parents’ information sheet which was things like thy hair shall not be lower than the collar and things like that, also in the event of trouble in the city we will keep the children at the school until it’s safe, do not come and try to get them, we’ll keep them there until it’s safe. They were told for instance this was a Catholic area where Catholics picked up black taxis to go up to West Belfast near the school and they said ‘Never, ever go near there in a school uniform because you get hit you know you could get hit by a gang’ and stuff like that.
We were in Canada and went into a department store [laughs] and the kids walk in, they walk up to the first person they see and they go [arms out stretched], they expect to be searched. Yes and the guy says, What are you doing?’ They said, Oh we’re from Belfast’, this is like a five-year-old kid you know and the guy goes ‘oh’ [laughs].
Our son would come in and he’d go ‘damn you know a bloody fucking bomb scare you know we started up in town you know and there was a bomb and we had to cut back and had to go up and had to walk around’ you know, like an inconvenience.
However, this also impacted upon Bob’s fear for his children’s safety. Bob tells me that he was at an ISA conference in Brisbane and shared a taxi with a woman from Israel about the safety of children and bombs in conflict.
the Intifada was going on and they were having bombs in Israel and she said something like ‘well you know I know whenever bombs go off I worry, but I know that the odds that my kids are caught in one are very low’ and I said ‘yes but until they walk through that door you’re kind of thinking aren’t you’ and she said ‘actually you’re right ‘- because I’d done exactly the same thing in Belfast you know. We had this like odd common connection.
Sectarian neighbourhoods and TINKs
Bob described how the area where they had first lived had changed a lot over time. It had changed from being mostly families with a mix of shops to now being half student and half professionals, ‘Tinks’, two incomes, no kids.
But when we lived here it was quite different. It was mostly families and so the mix of shops was different. There were like two butchers, two greengrocers, stuff like that. One’s Protestant and one’s Catholic and so we’ve wandered in of course and [laughs] you know if we walked into a shop everybody would notice which shop we’d walked into, you know.
Fig. 18. Shopping area
Bob tells me by chance the greengrocer they settled on was Catholic.
Fig.19. Our first house is down this street.
We were in a Queen’s University House and we were renting it for a little while and the Assistant Bursar in charge of housing called me in after two years and he said, ‘I’m going to do something to you and it’s going to disturb you but you’re going to thank me in the future’. He said, ‘I’m going to throw you out of your house’. He said because of the Troubles, housing is ridiculously under-priced here and you will thank me for this [laughs] and so we bought number 16 when we get to it for four thousand, four hundred pounds.
Bob did not take an image of the house because people were at home.
It looks like this area is still families or it’s gone back to being families given there’s what looks like young people coming out of houses that aren’t students.
In our later exchange, Bob tells me that ‘this is a comment on sociological change and ecological succession in an area over time (in the Chicago School sense of ‘ecological’).
He points and tells me
You see the red, I painted that red, they painted over it again. I had this idea that I would paint the red the same to match and the surrounds all to match the bricks. That’s the house.
There are kids in it again. The people who moved into it was a lecturer in philosophy and his wife and I ran into, occasionally I’d run into him after that for a couple of years and he said that they would regularly find little bits of Lego and stuff you know under floorboards.
To me, there is a similarity with this first house and Bob’s current house. Both are Victorian terraces and there looks to be a park at the end of this road too –although it is the Vice Chancellor of the University’s garden behind the wall. It felt like they may have been gravitating to more intimate and convivial spaces. In response to this comment, Bob tells me that ‘the basic orientation and layout of the two houses was the same, only our present one is larger. It was very odd when we moved; it was like we hadn’t moved but expanded our house’.
Bob tells me that they moved into their current house when Luke was two and Sam was five because their previous house didn’t have a garden.
The street leads into the Vice-Chancellor’s lodge and Queen’s owned all the houses on it, they were quite nice houses and they made them over into, you know, departmental offices and things but the gardeners had kept up the gardens and the gardens were beautiful. The people who had lived in them had been quite wealthy, you know, big houses and so we, when the weather was nice after five when everything was shut or at the weekends, we’d go down there and kind of use the gardens and gradually we began to, we found a hole in the fence and there was like a derelict other garden this old school had. And we discovered ourselves at the Vice-Chancellor’s lake and we wandered around the Vice-Chancellor’s private lake, pond and I thought ‘I hope he doesn’t catch me here’. We snuck into the Vice-Chancellor’s garden twice.
Fig.20. A door that leads into part of the Vice-Chancellor’s garden
probably where the gardener lived. Yes, and I imagine this is where the Vice-Chancellor’s carriage used to come out.
Bob tells me that, after he discovered the Vice-Chancellor’s gardens and how nice they were, he came across an old handbook of the university and it mentioned the Vice-Chancellor’s gardens previously had been open to the public on Sunday afternoons from two to five.
The book was maybe from ten years out-of-date or maybe fifteen. So I thought ’Why not?’ and I rang up the Vice-Chancellor’s office [laughs] and got a very, smooth Vice-Chancellor’s secretary and I said ‘about the gardens being open from two to five you know I came across this and do you know when they’re going to reinstate that?’ and she said ‘Oh I’ve never heard of that, give me, I’ll get back to you’ and a week later she got back and she said the department of biology was using the lake for biological experiments and they were going to be closed indefinitely until they finished the experiments, which is a hooey, they didn’t exist you know but it was, I just thought why not.
I tell Bob that it feels like the university is really wrapped around him,
Bob goes on to tell me he was talking to some older staff and they said: “Oh yes, our first house was there.” He said at least two generations of Queen’s staff had gone through the same progression of living in the relatively inexpensive area close to the University before moving on to larger, more pricey housing.
Fig.21. The Terrace
This used to be called The Terrace. There were almost no restaurants at the height of the Troubles. There was one downtown called Scandia. Scandia, it always stayed open, it was the only one and there was a posh restaurant out in Holywood, which is a suburb, well called the Pepper Mill and aside from fish and chip shops and oddly a couple of Chinese restaurants, no restaurants. A woman called Jenny who opened a restaurant in and called it The Terrace because it was in a terraced house and it was the first like normal kind of bistro kind of restaurant in Belfast at the time.
Bob said it was like Casablanca because everybody would go there, politicians, journalists, the American consulate ‘who was a spook and they all would meet there’ and Bob’s wife Twy worked there.
Jenny wanted Twy to work as a waitress because it would give them a bit of class having an American waitress and it worked fine for a couple of months until some snooty people were in and they complained about some things on the menu, ‘they weren’t made correctly’ and Twy said something like ‘how would you know?’ Then Jenny said “Twy, perhaps you could work in the kitchen” [laughs] and so she was a cook after that. Twy’s personality doesn’t suit being a waitress.
At this point, we were walking along the high street past shops.
Fig.22. High Street Shops
I think Cranium was the Catholic greengrocer’s and about the third house, third one up there beyond there was a Protestant greengrocer’s. The Protestant guy was OK but this (catholic greengrocer) was the closest one to our house, that’s the one we would normally go. One Saturday two guys pulled up on a motorbike, the guy got off the pillion, walked in, shot the guy who ran the place twice in the head in front of his wife and daughter, went out and drove off and we heard it on the news. The next Saturday we were going to get groceries and they were open and the wife and daughter were serving and we were going in to get something and it was just awful because they were just grey you know and you were thinking ‘oh this time last week just about now’, you know.
And I said life and business goes on
Yes, well places were bombed, during the war you won’t remember but you probably saw pictures of during the war when the German’s bombed things during the blitz if the business was still going the windows would be boarded up and things, but they’d have a sign up, ‘Business as usual’. Buildings here when they were bombed, same thing, ’Business as usual’ you know we’re open again…
I remarked on the grandeur of the buildings around us and the fact that the University is central and the residencies and shops wrap around it.
Fig.23. College Gardens
The Methodist College is on the left and on the right is the site of the now-defunct Senior Common Room, let out to a restaurant. Yes, it’s an urban university. It’s kind of expanded and I know when I first came here Queen’s had a policy of when houses came up it would, around the university, it would buy the house if it could.
Fig.24. School of Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work.
This was a terrace of houses and is now the School of Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work.
Roadblocks, soldiers, milk and cigarettes
Fig.25. House number 31.
Before he bought his first house thanks to the university’s ‘encouragement’ and before their children were born, Bob and Twy, his wife, rented one of these houses from Queen’s University. As we return towards the University, we pass the door to this house.
As far as I know, this is still a Queen’s house, it’s number thirty-one and was ours. We lived here for two, two and a half years before the Assistant Bursar made us move up. They used to often have a roadblock here because if you come along here, you can’t actually see if there’s a roadblock right here because of the hill, so somebody coming over and there was no way to turn off so if they saw a car turn around and go the other way they knew ‘bad guy.’ We used to get milk delivered in those days and one morning a very bored British Army soldier was in full combat gear, probably half asleep like this against the door [laughs] and Twy opened the door to get the milk and he went whoosh, bang and landed at her feet going ‘oh sorry missus, sorry missus’ [laughs] you know you [laughs]. One time we got a really bad feeling that things were just about to go pear-shaped and there’s probably a military history of those years that has never been written and things were going on that were secret, in that the struggle between the IRA, the British Army and the various other factions was to a great extent an intelligence war. There was a lot of tension, there was a lot of shooting and we ran out of cigarettes [laughs] and there was a cigarette machine up there at the shops and we had a boarder at the time, I liked him a lot and we debated, we went round and like smoked every butt we could find in the house and then we just can’t take this and so we, Mike and I, went out with the sound of gunfire crackling around us. To get a pack of ciggies thinking and, I mean we were kind of joking about you know, “cigarette smoking could be very bad for our health here you know” [laughs]. A slave to nicotine.
Fig.26. A view of the entrance to the now-defunct QUB Senior Common Room.
The entrance was down there. Most universities the common room’s kind of, you know, stodgy, but in the early 1970s we moved here the Queen’s Common Room was packed sort of five deep at the bar on a weekend and the reason is it was safe, perceived as safe is that most bars were regularly bombed or machine-gunned or stuff like that and so that’s where we would go there if we weren’t at home.
All the socialising was either dinner parties back and forth with other people in the department at the university or going to the Queen’s Common Room bar. The Lord Chancellor, the top legal officer for Britain, came to give a talk in the Law School and they were taken into the Common Room for a drink afterwards and if you can see there’s a house overlooking it there?
That was vacant at the time. It was empty and, as they were going into the Common Room, two guys opened fire and missed the Lord Chancellor but got the Professor of Accountancy in the butt and it’s very, it was very well planned because there’s an alleyway behind these houses that runs all the way over to the next road over and there was a car waiting there. So they had a shot and they ran down, jumped in the car and took off. You see they immediately were away and on a different street, well-planned assassination.
Bob commented that this was a major incident in relation to the University Common Room being perceived as a safe place.
Well it was a bit of a shock I think, but again he was a target and again notice the connection with the law. There’s a theme here.
Civil rights/welfare state
The funny thing about the Northern Ireland Troubles is it started with the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in a way was caused by the welfare state.
There is no doubt that Catholics suffered blatant discrimination under the Unionist regime. Up through the Second World War, there was blatant discrimination against Catholics. At the same time, the post-war educational reforms meant that for the first time working-class Catholics could go to grammar schools and subsequently on to university (remember that those who passed the much-maligned 11+ exam could then go to grammar schools at no cost and later on to university, where there were no fees and a generous living allowance for poorer, working-class students). The core of the Civil Rights movement in N.I. in the late 1960s was the first generation of working-class Catholic university graduates who had gone through the post-war system. Highly qualified Protestant students, helped by the design of the UCCA form, tend to consider universities “across the water” in the whole of the UK and apply accordingly. Whereas more highly qualified Catholic students are more likely to consider only universities located in Ireland. Graduates tend to seek employment in the geographic area where they attended university. The end result of this is that a larger portion of university graduates seeking employment in Northern Ireland are Catholic
Also, because historically the good jobs were reserved for Protestants (e.g., skilled manual jobs), the only route up for Catholics aside from emigrating was through education. So, now in late modernity where education is required for almost all good jobs, the Catholics have a long-established tradition of using education, whereas the Protestant male working class does not. The strata with the worst employment prospects in N.I. these days are the male Protestant working class. While there is no doubt that the reforms implemented by the British government were effective is combatting discrimination against Catholics, as far as job discrimination is concerned, they were helped by an improving economic situation during the latter decades of the 20th century. It was easier to reapportion the jobs pie when the pie was growing in size.
To put it another way, the much-vaunted improvement in Catholic job opportunities in N.I. is in part due to a shortage of qualified Protestants, leaving employers with no choice but to hire Catholics.
We were passing the Students Union
Fig.27. The Students’ Union is the modern building
It’s a very functional building and you can see how it was when I was here first in those days you could only go into, they’ve modernised the front now, I used to go to the Union all the time because I wasn’t that much older than the students and there was one entrance that was closely monitored because it was a real target because it was controlled by the Catholics. Protestant/Catholic students would go there during the day, at night it was Catholic students only who would socialise in the bars and the student union officers were all Catholic, basically trainee Sinn Fein politicians.
And one interesting story is I once when I, I used to give a multiple choice test for my stats course and the students of course were terrified by a multiple choice test and at the end of it I would take them to the Union and buy them a drink as an apology. And one year I went there and of course you go in, the test was in the morning, so lunchtime we were in there, at about seven o’clock I’m still there and some of my students are still there but also most of them have wandered off and I met a guy who was not a sociology student, but he had taken first-year sociology as a politics student. He was in his final year and I was talking to him and he introduced me to two people he knew and he made a joke about ‘oh they aren’t university students but they’ve just finished, they’ve been visiting one of Her Majesty’s holiday camps and they’re just back’ and they were prisoners you know who had been released and I’m talking to them and you know just talking and this other guy comes up who’s a little bit older than most students, just comes up and stands there, and they both look at him and they say and they just sort of leave and I’m talking to this other guy, look at that, ‘oh you’re a Yank’ you know and ‘you’re here and you’re talking to my mates there and what are you here for’ you know and I explained about the test and so forth and he went ‘OK’ and he went off and then my, the politics student came back and said, ’Do you know who you’ve been talking to?’ I said ‘I don’t know, some guy’, he said ‘that’s the head of the provisional IRA at Queen’s University’ and the Union would have had maybe a thousand students in it and I started talking to these two ex-prisoners, within five minutes word gets to this guy that an American in his thirties is talking to these two guys, ‘who the fuck is he?’, you know, and he came to check me out and once he realised ‘oh he’s just a dumb lecturer’, off he went, but that was you know there was always this intelligence war going on and everybody trying to get one up on the other.
And, you know it’s funny, as far as I can tell there are no memorials about the Civil Rights Movement in there. Nothing. No plaque ‘in this room the Civil Rights March was held’, you know or you know nothing like that which is surprising. As you can see I’m very, my borders are really around the university.
I told Bob I could see that and that it was interesting as well that the kind of Sociology he did, gravitated to, was Biographical.
First, when I first I was a quantitative sociologist doing social mobility, the project I came over to work on was a social mobility project and it was due to the Troubles. Tanaka was here. I never worked out how he ended up here on a year’s sabbatical but he was and it was when the Civil Rights Movement was going on and the Catholics were saying ‘there’s discrimination against Catholic’s you know, ‘when we’re equally qualified we don’t get the job’ et cetera and Tanaka, who was a demographer but also interested in social stratification, said this is classic discrimination stuff and so he wrote up an application for a social mobility study just located in Belfast with a sample of about a thousand.
Mirroring the other big mobility studies that were going on around the world and it was called the SSRC in those days, they turned him down but said ‘We’ve turned you down but we’ve just funded a big mobility study at Nuffield College of England and Wales, a replication of the original Glass Study of the 50s, and we’re going to fund one up in Scotland so if you did Ireland we’ve kind of got the whole of the British Isles don’t we if you did Ireland as opposed to Belfast’. So he went ‘OK’ and he wrote an enormous application which they got and then Tanaka got it and then eventually he went to the UN and I ended up doing it [laughs], the whole study and the first time I gave a paper it was on, there’s a thing called a path diagram of social mobility.
It said that various things might affect someone’s life chances and I applied the American version of it and basically it’s things like your first job and your education, your father’s job because they do a father’s job and your father’s education are mainly what affect your particular position and I said also for Northern Ireland ,we also get, a fairly small in comparison to all the rest, which is this explicit effect of religion, if you’re Protestant you’ve got a bit better chance and I gave it to this Queen’s Conference that was going on, given by a guy in geography and everybody just went crazy, just went ‘impossible’! ‘What do you mean’? ‘This cannot be’! You know, and I go, but it’s only like ten percent you know, it’s not big but it’s statistically is you know and there was a woman there a lecturer in social anthropology who was a Nationalist and she sort of said, she said ‘you’re being educated Bob’ you know and she was killed.
She was involved in the hunger strikes and she came home one day and she was ambushed by some paramilitaries and they tortured her to death and left the body in her front hall and she had two twin eleven-year-old girls who came in and found her.
And the university ignored it. Because she was a well-known Republican. But at the same time, the university was never attacked as an institution ever because from the Protestant point of view it was the Queen’s University of Belfast, it was part of the establishment.
And at the same time, the Civil Rights Movement had been pretty much planned here so both sides sort of saw it as and a lot of Catholic students were here so.
I asked Bob how that worked in the classroom, given the politics.
Well, most departments are predominately one or the other.
We have always been a Catholic Department because people that were with us were heading for careers in social work, social services, stuff like that. Engineering, Protestants, and so there was kind of the STEM subjects seem to be Protestants and the liberal arts and humanities tend to be more Catholics.
And but there was always, there was some mixing and things were fairly tense when I got here, they calmed down and then when hunger strikes came along in whatever year that was, again about 1981 I think Bobby Sands, it really divided again, because that was an issue that really divided people..Students when they came up they would tend to stick together in their same in the first year people would stick together with the people in their own school often, it wouldn’t be really until after that they would split up. I once had a year first tutorial, you know Crossmaglen, notorious Crossmaglen? It’s the one place where the British Army had a base, they had to supply it by helicopter it was too dangerous to come in by land down in South Armagh. I had a tutorial, sociology tutorial group from Crossmaglen and they were something else, they were really a lot of fun and one of them told me a story [laughs] one time, the others told me the story about him. He was due to sit his A’ Levels in English and the British Army lifted him about nine o’clock at night to take him in for interrogation and he’s going ‘I’ve got my A’ Levels tomorrow’ and they said ‘don’t worry son we’ll get you there’ [laughs]. Now whereabouts you know and at a quarter to nine in his underwear and this is like February you know when the exams were taken they trot him out to the base, they put him in a helicopter, go over to the playing fields of the Catholic School where his exams were, land, boot him out in his underwear, ‘good luck with your exams son’, and choppered off [laughs].
I express my horror at this event in relation to the impact on the young man, but also it reinforces the entanglement, within the university as an educational institution, of the conflict as an expression of borders, risk and belonging
Yes, yes I mean different departments, different groups. I was giving a first-year lecture about something and I was talking about statistics and so forth and I said ’Well, statistically we know I think it’s actually true that if you look at a class of university students the smartest students sit in the front row or the back row and the rest are in the middle, and I looked up and I realised that in the front row were all Protestant, very earnest Protestant girls and in the back they’re Catholic. And one of the Protestant girls turns around and says ‘see, we’re the smartest’ and one of the Catholic boys said ‘yes but we don’t try very hard and we get just as good marks as you do’ [laughs] and I kind of went let’s move on now folks’ you know.
I asked Bob about his experience of doing qualitative research in sociology in the context of the sectarianism and people’s sense of identity and their belonging and asked him ‘how do you manage that’?
Well, when I first came I couldn’t tell Protestant from Catholic and it was funny like within a year you know when I would meet someone I would automatically ‘OK are they Protestant or Catholic?’ You know and you could do it by names, names are a dead giveaway. And schools and place sometimes, where you live, if they’ll tell you. Some people would claim you could tell just by accent and a linguist student tried very hard and said’ there’s absolutely no truth in that’ and I think he’s probably right.
I remember one time I was talking to some of the students and they said ’You know Bob of all the staff we’ve worked out what everybody is except you, we aren’t sure because you’re American’ and I said ‘oh I’m middle-class through and through’, I thought they were talking about class but it was religion, they had worked out who was Protestant and who was Catholic but they hadn’t been able to get me.
I think I said I was an atheist or something like that. A couple more, one more horror story in a minute.
Fig.28. Foyer entrance to Bob’s then Office.
Do you remember my old office that was down there and there was a knock at the door and this old guy came in with a middle-aged lady and a young boy and he had grown up in the house and he told me that it had been a doctor’s office and he and his family had had like a flat upstairs and the doctor’s office had been the ground floor and he’d just come back and he just was having a look and I said ’Well look around.’
We were walking past a very grand building, beautifully lit in the fading light.
Fig.29. The Presbyterian College.
Yes, yes this is not part of the university this is the Presbyterian College. It’s the main seminary for training Presbyterian ministers for Ireland but it, before they built the Stormont Parliament house that’s where the Stormont Parliament met. And one time, when Thatcher came in and unemployment went up, they had me come to talk to them and they told me about how they had been students here and they told me that they remembered when parliament used to be there and they said the Governor General of Northern Ireland would come up and come up in his carriage and they used to have a row of RUC policemen standing here and when the Governor General came out they had to stand to attention; and this used to be the old student union, the original. The students would be behind there and they would wait until they stood at attention and they would all lean over and they would push the helmets of the guys down over their noses like this [laughs] and they couldn’t break attention so they had to stand there with their helmets slipped and then they’d run off you know.
But this yes they’ve got the lights on this is good, unfortunately, they’re doing this work and it looks like not all the paintings are up because they have been doing some renovation.
There used to be a politician called Edgar something, a Unionist politician who was a lecturer in Law here and he was trying to out-Paisley Paisley because Paisley, the reason Paisley won and had been the First Minister of Northern Ireland, is he would always take a more steadfast Protestant position than any other politician and just keep moving to the right and it worked in the end. And this guy was trying to do the same thing, making very provocative statements and he had a habit of every morning at ten minutes to eleven he would walk across there and go and get coffee in the Great Hall. If you’re making inflammatory, political statements in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, you should not be a man of any regular habit.
And somebody noticed in the School of Law again and they shot him.
Right out there.
Bob remembered another killing, also connected to the theme of law that he had meant to tell me about when we passed the exam hall.
There was a policeman who was doing a law degree and if you wanted to catch a policeman sometime when you knew where he was going to be at a certain time and you knew he was going to be distracted, what would be a good time? When he’s taking an exam.
Because they used to sit them in alphabetical order so you’d know exactly where he’d be, which row and so they were having the law exam in a very crowded hall and two guys walked in, walked briskly up the hall, shot him, walked out. All these happened within eighteen months and I’m sure there was some Catholic law student at the time who was the finger, the finger man who was tipping them off on all this.
I asked if Law was predominantly Catholic.
It was half and half because even in the 30s you always had Catholic lawyers and Catholic doctors because Catholics need doctors and lawyers, so those traditional professions were always mixed, not really mixed but they were parallel is a better way to put it. I imagine some things like certainly Engineering, Economics, Management, Protestant. Sociology, Music, things like that, Catholic. Education would have been mixed, there was a teacher training, St Mary’s and Stranmillis, Stranmillis is Protestant, St Mary’s is Catholic and they still are existing. Queen’s was trying to absorb them but it messed up because of sectarianism. The Catholics wouldn’t play ball. Basically, they didn’t want to give up control of their education and but the postgraduate education certificates all took place at Queen’s and it would have been mixed, but again sort of parallel.
Border Crossing: mobility, bombs and close escapes
I was in a unique position, Twy and I both because we’re American. This has always been a very pro-American place you know. It was more pro-American in those days than now, because of the huge amounts of immigration out of Northern Ireland to the United States. Virtually everybody had relations in the States, both Protestant and Catholic, and so even quite dicey places, as soon as I opened my mouth, ‘Oh, you’re a Yank’, you know, and so I could move across borders that it would be very unwise if you were English or Northern Irish to do. Our two sons, like my oldest son’s name, is Samuel and my youngest son is named Luke Old Testament names are Protestant, New Testament names are Catholic, so when Sam was born, it’s a family name you know, ’What’s your baby called?’ ‘Samuel’. ‘Oh, what a wee, that’s a sweet name, Samuel’s a good name’. Or ‘Samuel? You named him Samuel’! You know [laughs] and then when Luke was born ’What’s his?’, you didn’t and the person who was going ’Wee’, would go ‘Luke? Why did you name him Luke’ and the ones who were going ‘Oh Samuel’ they’re going ‘Oh yes, oh yes, a lovely name, a lovely’ you know it was just
I say you have one of each!
Yes but that was just coincidence. Sam was named Sam because it’s a family name and Luke was named Luke because Star Wars was just out [laughs] and Twy was really into Star Wars.
We were walking past a convenience store.
Russell’s used to be a newsagent called Gardiners and it was one of those places that they liked to bomb and it was bombed and they rebuilt it and they bombed and they rebuilt it. It’s been bombed at least three times.
I mean there’s no doubt Catholics were discriminated against, there’s no doubt that they had a case, but the IRA was never particularly nice either.
I can tell the stories. A very bad taste joke I made one time, see that hotel over there, Madison’s Hotel? It used to be called, I think, the Russell Court and it’s a very nice place. Then it was a kind of rundown and it has the dubious distinction of having two sectarian assassinations in it within a year. One where a Protestant paramilitary was murdered and the one a year later when a Catholic paramilitary was murdered. So it’s a, it was a non-sectarian drinking place [laughs], which you know so non-sectarian sectarian assassinations or equal opportunity assassinations’ used to do a number, you’ve got me being reminiscent now.
I say I am happy about that.
When I went to the social mobility conferences, often you’d have Americans come and there was always social mobility. Social stratification people are not the most aware people in the world, let’s put it that way [laughs], sociologically aware, and there would always be some American bore there who would be sort of saying ‘Oh, America is the future and California is the future of America so if you look at California that’s what the whole world’s going to be like’ and I go No, no, no, no, no, no. I’m from Northern Ireland, I’ll lay you money twenty-five years from now Northern Ireland’s the way to the future. We have lack of human rights, we have tight security, we have terrorism, we have people worried about getting killed you know in public, using public transport. I bet you [laughs] that we’re the way of the future’. Who was right [laughs]?
Yes, and everyone was ’Hmm mmm’, you know maybe it was kind of funny.
Bob comments to me in a later exchange even though he did not self-identify as being Northern Irish, from early on, he did feel an obligation to represent Northern Ireland as a place with a comparative bent.
One time, again probably early 70s, late 70s I was doing a karate class and there was a guy in the class who lived on this street, India Street, a couple of doors down and I went back after the class you know and had a drink with him and then I came out and at that time you see all around here there would have been nothing, everything shut at dusk, there were no restaurants, everything shut, no lights and I came out and I had my sports gear in a satchel bag and I came out and got about right about here I suppose and a British Army patrol came around the corner, loaded you know they had like one guy with a radio and a guy in front you know the point man and the guy at the back was doing a thing where he, every twenty seconds you do a complete rotation and I thought ‘Whoa! Hello! There’s no way they won’t stop me’ and of course they did but you see a young guy with a satchel you know. And the guy walked up to me and he just went and I opened it up and he looked at it and went. He didn’t say a word.
This street is now a bustling, brightly-lit street.
At one time I was running both fieldwork teams, I was running them both and I was living In between you know two or three days in Dublin, the rest of the week up here and I worked out I had a hundred and ten people working for me [laughs] you know I was twenty-six years old.
You know if the ESRC had known they’d have gone ‘oh my God’ In the fieldwork we had a system to encourage the interviewers to take a long time because actually, this is the link with biographical research, we had what was called a retrospective life history. We didn’t just ask people what was your first job, what’s your present job, we said ’Tell us every job you’ve had in your life and also, if you’ve been out of work for any periods of time, the date when you became out of work’, and if they could tell us the year and month when they changed their job or became unemployed or whatever you see in theory then you could produce a grid of what they were in any particular month. At the time we did it they didn’t actually have the computer programmes that could do it but we figured they would and we used to have to have programmers, like if you wanted to know a particular thing what was the sample doing in January 1960 they had to do a special programme to retrieve that particular date but then they came along with this other programme, we could start doing it ourselves. A guy called Harvey Goldstein told me about it when I was doing the ECPR summer school. Oh, we’ve missed something, we’ll double back this way.
We had to test it and one of the things we were testing, we had a guy, our boarder who had a Sociology degree and he was sent out to test some of the research instruments. We had asked him if he could sort occupations to get our occupation scale and he had to carry all this stuff and he’d go to people’s houses and he had to sort the occupations into slots And he was in Portadown which is like a really heavy paramilitary place and he’s walking along with his suitcase and his kit and he just ’Psst, psst, come here boy’ and he comes over and this guy says ’You can’t go down there, the Brits are down there boy’ and he keeps on going and the soldiers call him over and again they see a young guy with a suitcase and they, ’What are you doing?’ and he’s saying ‘Well you it’s a study of social mobility and occupational right’ you know. ‘What’s in the case?’ and they opened it up and all these computer cards and stuff and the guy, it was too dark to see so the guy had a sniper scope on his rifle so he used a sniper scope when he looked at the case and said ’Hold your ID up next to your face’. He went like this and the guy takes the rifle and he looks at his ID and looks at his face like this and he’s going ‘Yeah! Go’!
We wanted the interviewers to take their time on the interviews so we paid them a pound an hour which was pretty good money in those days for interview time and forty pence an hour for travel time and the idea was once they’d got somewhere they’d want to stay for a long time because they’re making more money and it worked. They did very excellent, detailed interviews but occasionally they had to put in expense claims and I remember getting one expense claim from a lady saying ‘Well I’m sorry, I’ve got a two and a half hour travel time but you know I was going to such-and-such an address and I got up to the top of the street and there was a riot going on and I couldn’t get around it so I had to go down by so-and-so to cut around and get behind the riot and I got there and I got to the house and at the time when the interview finished the shooting had started and the family wouldn’t let me leave so I had to wait until the shooting’ you know and this was like an interview and she said ‘I’m very sorry for the extra expense’ and I’m going Jeez’ you know!
I say ‘Yes and again close calls’.
One advantage of being so close to Queen’s if you get home and you realise you’ve left something it’s ten minutes.
Yes just to get back and get it and I was home and I realised I had forgotten something and I decided ’Well, I’ll go back and get it’ and the nine o’clock news came on and I said ‘oh well I’ll just catch the headlines before I go’ and about four minutes after nine there was a big explosion, boom and so I listened to the rest of the news and I came out and I’d walk up here you see and walk that was the way to go and when I got here there was police and ambulance and stuff and somebody had been blown up and what had happened was the IRA had stolen a motorcycle and they had parked it right about here and they had filled a motorcycle helmet with high explosive with a trigger switch so if you lifted the helmet the bomb would go off.
And the idea was they would report the motorbike as stolen, the RUC would come along, see the stolen motorbike, pick up the helmet, but you’re a kid, you are a couple of teenagers walking along and you see a motorbike with a helmet just lying loose on it, what do you do? You steal the helmet and one of these kids picked up the helmet and was just boom, blown into the air and again if I had not decided to watch the news it takes about four to five minutes to walk from my house to round about here you know.
Another near escape.
Yes, near escape, how close you never know, but a bit close. It was sometimes [laughs] we enjoyed the pubs and the social life was good with the you know. We were very close in the department. They were very small at that time and everybody had been appointed pretty much at the same time, about the same age and people socialised a lot and it was very exciting.
I say, so there was a sense of community in the department.
Yes but in many ways it was also I enjoy life much more now than I did then, to tell the truth, because we had you know everybody was, the 70s in Britain people, academics complain about bad pay but it was really bad pay then, worse than now, we were always broke and it wasn’t through lavish spending we just weren’t paid very well and I remember I did teaching, tutoring for the Open University.
I suggest that kids are also very expensive.
We were, yes one thing that broke us all the time as well is we would go back to the States and you know it would be four trans-Atlantic plane fares, which were you know ferociously expensive. And they were proportionately much more expensive now, then than they are now.
Fig.30. Common Grounds Coffee Shop
Well, a contemporary bit of the border this is the local shop [laughs]. We’ll turn right here so if we talk about my personal borders, oh there’s one thing too I want you to see where the lights are? That’s a place called Common Grounds, it’s a coffee shop that’s run by this church, it’s kind of a community church and it’s really nice and it’s the place where people would tend to go in the School if they were going for coffee. We were there, we were there yes like I would take people there. So if you talk about a border that’s a border at the side.
Yes, I suppose the other thing, the Botanics, you see you can easily walk into Belfast from our house and now because we’re over sixty the bus fares are free here. There’s no bus, public transport’s free.
Yes so we just usually catch the bus and if the bus isn’t coming we just walk and taxis are actually quite cheap here too so you can if you don’t want to, if you’re in town and you don’t want to walk back and the bus isn’t going to come for a while, just.
I suppose there are little bits of me not so much in Florida anymore because my mother’s now gone into a retirement home and she’s moved to North Carolina in the town where I was born. So, if anything, I’ve got a little bit of a long awakened route back there all of a sudden and over to London for Sam. Which I know pretty well now because we’ve always been going there and I’m there you know quite a lot.
Bob pointed to the housing in the area called the Holy Land,
This is almost all student housing now and it’s you know it’s the exam period doesn’t start till next week so there are no students here but this would be all in term time week these streets would be full, there’d be the clink of bottles, of people you know, they drink a lot and this particular area, if you’re the kind of student who basically just wants to party and drink this, is where you go.
Bob had called the students living in this area Culchies
I’ll tell you one last little thing, one last bit about border but still in the border. You can’t quite see it, but if you go down just around the corner which is where Ormeau Road is, there’s the Asian Supermarket there and also we shop out of there as much as the grocery store and it’s Asian, it’s basically for the Chinese community but also anybody else foreign and we’ve been shopping there ever since we lived here.
Roma, of course you know when the accession states came in lots of Eastern Europeans appeared here, it made the politicians, the Protestant politicians, very nervous because what religion are they in Poland and Lithuania et cetera but when they came here they calmed down pretty quickly because it became pretty clear that they can be a good Catholic but they’re not Irish Republicans and if they vote, if they bothered to vote, they’re more likely to vote Unionist because they prefer to be in Britain than Ireland and so they calmed down but even that is interesting. The Poles came here, there used to be a lot of Poles living particularly down at the bottom there. At one time there were grocery stores down there, they’re all gone. I imagine they’ve gone to more affluent housing. I think what happened is they lived there because that’s where the cheap housing was and now they’re doing better and boom you know.
I suggested it was also an example of what the Chicago sociologists spoke about in relation to zones of transition.
Zones of transition
I have, I’ve lived here for so long I can tell you it’s amazing to experience it, I’ve experienced genuine social change over a medium time span first hand. Two last stories. Holy Land, one thing about it is landlords own the property down there and they’ve really been very bad because it’s also multiple occupancy and they fill it full of students, the kind of students, they wreck the places but what they do is the students have to sign a year lease they’ll be here for a period of months. At the end of the year they leave, the landlords get people in, they clean them, they get professional cleaners in, they clean up the mess, they paint it and let it again. They’re starting to lose money now because the reputation is so bad that people, parents who live in the west of Northern Ireland, have heard about the Holy Land and their son says ‘I want to live in the Holy Land’ and they go ‘over our dead body’ and you know so they can’t let, there’s only Romas who come in because they can’t let them to students.
Two stories, quick stories, you’ll be getting cold. One, like I say the middle-class is striking back, there’s a street, it’s kind of diagonal to where we are now and practically everyone on it is normal people and they created something called Wild Flower Alley. They had an alley that was behind their houses and the two streets that butt on to it and it was like apparently it was used for prostitution, drugs and just full of trash. They cleaned, they talked the council into putting gates on it so and they cleaned it up and they call it Wild Flower Alley and there are flowers in it and things.
Fig.31. View of the Route from Bob’s House to his Office ‘I’ve been up and down this street at least thirty thousand times’
One last story I want you to get out of the cold, the house is right there, this is the street if we walk on. We’ve been here for thirty-four years, I usually come home at lunch, I usually almost every day go into work, so you’re talking about walking up and down this street twenty times a week, thirty-four years so, given a couple of weeks off for holidays and things, it’s about a thousand times a year. So I’ve been up and down this street at least thirty thousand times [laughs].
Actually, someone else asked me something similar to what you asked me to do but a little bit smaller, they were looking at expatriates living in Belfast and they asked me to take a picture a day for ten days. And just write a paragraph about why I took the picture and I took one of that street, I got the camera down low and took it and at that time it was I think twenty-five thousand times I’d been up and down the street.
I had a strong sense of Bob’s Belfast, the threads and intersections that ran between home, family, friendship and work, his life and identity as a sociologist, a biographical sociologist. I experienced first-hand that his work is intimately connected to the place he was living in and the history and relationship not only to sectarianism but the people, places, the University and a transcultural identity as an American in Belfast and that family life is at the centre of it all. That he had paced out along the ground these relationships and stories with me was a privilege.
I looked at the road and imagined this journey taken over so many years and the connection back to family and home every lunchtime from the University. Although Bob’s map shows our route Botanic gardens at the centre of everything, when I reflect back, it is the garden, house and home which is at the centre. We met people along the way who knew him and I got an even stronger sense of the conviviality connected to his work as a sociologist, life and family in Belfast.
It was a really cold day, thankfully the rain held off. Back at Bob’s house, I was shown his study and I thought how much it connected to the stories he had told me – the relationship between work and home, Belfast and Florida, university life and family all represented here in the study.
Fig.32. Bob’s study. Desk and swivel chair once owned by his grandfather
Fig. 33. Items and memorabilia in the study.
Earlier in the walk, I had asked Bob if he considered Belfast his home.
We do, we do but I think we probably really didn’t until maybe just a few years ago because we always had this sort of belief that we would retire back to the States and we actually own land in Florida that we bought oh God, when? Fifteen years ago I guess now because we realised if we waited, because at that time it was before the sort of collapse of the property bubble, that we may not be able to actually move back to the county where we were from, so we bought land there which is now just an investment which we’ll fill at some point.
It appeared to me that borders and risk are writ large in the map and in the stories Bob told me along the way and I had a good sense of the memories he shared attached to family and also to the place, the garden, the house, Botanic Gardens, the university and the city across a number of registers.
Belonging is an interesting concept as it feels that in the walk I had a sense of Bob’s strong belonging to the city, the place and the university, with family, his wife Twy Miller and sons Samuel and Luke at the very centre but also a ‘not belonging’ too, as an American, standing outside of sectarian struggles and with a wish for many years to return to Florida. The visits to the Tropical Ravine and the office full of plants mindful of a rainforest providing a sense of home, the Florida home.
Rather than concentric circles, it felt like we had walked a constellation with the home, communal garden and Botanic Gardens linking up with the University and the two previous houses and various places connected with the University or the neighbourhoods where risk and violence played out through sectarianism and extending out to London and Florida.
I thanked Bob for taking me on a walk around his Belfast. It was a privilege and an honour.
In the exchanges that followed the walk (I share the transcript and narrative and invite co-production, comments and addition with co-walkers, the walk and write up is a collaborative process) Bob sent the following and for readers interested in Biographical Methods this is a lovely point and refers to the focus of Bob’s life around the Botanic Gardens rather than the University but also the theme of time, memory, home and ‘return’.
This is an example of how a person, when they tell their life story to an interviewer can have insights into their lives that they didn’t have before. Until this moment, I had always thought my life in N.I. was centred around the University. At this point, I realized it is as much or more centred around the park.
This is one of the reasons that the life history method can produce insights that other modes of interviewing do not and it is interesting that this effect can apply even to someone like me who has done many life history interviews, has talked about them for years & years and has thought about his own life from the point of view of a life history researcher.
Bob also mentions the impact of the passing of time on one’s biographical rememberings.
Note that this is all being told from a vantage point of over 40 years later. The actual, experienced events haven’t changed, but our interpretation of them has changed several times over the decades.
Even though we quickly realized that my career was taking place in Europe, we had this dream that we were eventually going to return to the USA. About 10-12 years ago, I deliberately pursued a course of actions in my career that were calculated to get a job in the USA. It eventually succeeded with a good job offer (tenured full Professor) but there was too much going on in Europe and I turned down the job.
Even then, we still believed we were going to retire to the USA and it was only when retirement began to really loom did we realize it wasn’t on. In fact, it was interviewing people who had migrated to Northern Ireland from Eastern Europe, who still believed they would be eventually returning ‘home’ when they clearly would not, that finally caused the penny to drop for me.
For readers interested in Bob’s excellent research and publications, his profile at Queens University Belfast is here: http://pure.qub.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/robert-miller(bb6f48a8-13e6-45e3-a456-5b02d5956143)/publications.html
Bob managed the ERC funded cross European project on European Identities, a Director of Ark Belfast (a joint resource between the two Northern Ireland universities, established in 2000 to make social science information on Northern Ireland available to the widest possible audience) and is a founder member of ESA research network 3 on Biographical Perspectives on European Societies, serving as Chair between 1999-2003.