“In ways it was a normal childhood…and yet”


(Irish Times)

In Lucy Caldwell’s forthcoming novel, These Days, she describes bombed-out Belfast – the fire “cascading” into terraced houses, the bank so badly damaged it must be dynamited before it collapses, and street after street which has been completely destroyed.

“Belfast is finished, people say. There is no way we can come back from this,” she writes.

This was not the Troubles but the Belfast Blitz, a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe during the second World War which killed about 1,000 people in April and May 1941.

“I took those quotes from an Irish News journalist who was interviewing people at the time and they were saying Belfast was finished and that it could never come back, and I think there is a real poignancy writing that when we as readers know what is to come,” says Caldwell.

“This novel seemed to come like a gift out of nowhere, and I had always wanted to write it.

“Maybe it’s something that you have if you come from a city. I’ve always wanted to write a novel of my city, and I never expected this would be it.”

These Days tells the story of two sisters from east Belfast – one about to marry, the other in a secret romance with another woman – who must survive the assault on the city; like all Caldwell’s work, it is about women and girls and the relationships between them.

Yet it is, first and foremost, a story of Belfast; of the historical reality of the city at war and what it went on to become, as well as of the many other Belfasts that might have been but which were lost to the German bombs, the Troubles or even the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was writing that Belfast of the Blitz, I was writing with my awareness of what it meant to grow up in Belfast and the Troubles…and I was also writing something of what it meant to live through the April and May of the extraordinary times that we lived through [in 2020].”

These Days had its genesis in her son’s obsession with the picture book Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, which tells the story of a day in the life of a baby set against the backdrop of the second World War.

At the time they were living in east London, in a street that had been badly damaged during the second World War. “I was reading the story to him in bed thinking how strange it was that if his bedroom had been one metre away we wouldn’t have survived the London Blitz. In his bedroom in our flat we would have survived, but the entire rest of the street was obliterated.

“It’s that thing, if you come from Belfast or Derry, you can’t help thinking of the pure vagaries of chance that if you’re in this building, you’re fine, and if you’re a metre away, you’re not.”

That there had also been a Belfast Blitz “was never anything we had done in school”; she remembered her grandmother telling stories about it and “started realising that it was in living memory”.

Caldwell began researching and setting up interviews. “It was that period, that spring of 2020, when coronavirus was closing in, and there was that sense this thing was coming closer and closer and we were unprepared and it was unavoidable.”

She describes it “as if this portal opened of understanding” between life in those months before the first wave of the pandemic and the period of calm before the Belfast Blitz, when people “were telling themselves, almost with a sort of magical thinking, that it wouldn’t happen…when it did happen to Belfast the city was completely unprepared.”

The raids came in April and May 1941, months which “coincided exactly with our first lockdown,” says Caldwell.

“I wrote the first draft of the book in 11 weeks. I’ve never written anything like that before. It felt like it became untethered from reality, and I was living in this world and I was writing these characters.”

As she spoke to women who had been children during the Blitz she wondered what her own children, then two and five, would remember of the pandemic; interviewing a woman of 103 felt like “the most precious thing because at that time it was people in care homes, elderly people who were being hit the worst”.

“On more than one occasion I had managed to find someone and arranged to speak to them and then the conversation never happened, and it felt like there was this precious link and I was saving these stories as they were being lost.”

Born in 1981, Caldwell grew up in east Belfast and, like many before and since, left Northern Ireland at 18 to study, in her case at the University of Cambridge.

She published her first novel while a student and is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and short story writer; recent accolades include the BBC National Short Story Award, one of the world’s richest prizes for a single short story, which she won last year.

“I think of myself as a Belfast writer. It’s that Edna O’Brien thing, isn’t it? She says it’s the places of your childhood that haunt you, those crucial formative years. They’re like your bedrock, the place that you return to or the place that you’re trying to resolve. The place you can never escape.”

Yet she is equally part of a “whole generation of us who were reared with the expectation that we go away”. Being Northern Irish in London is, she says, a “peculiar kind of diaspora…because you have the illusion that you’re close, you’re only an hour’s flight or a ferry away and then something like the pandemic happens and you realise you really are far away”.

She arrived in Cambridge in 1999, the year after the Belfast Agreement which ended the Troubles; she recalls both the sense of dislocation – “you feel completely foreign, completely alien” – but also how the agreement brought “suddenly that possibility of plurality, you can be both, you don’t need to be either or.”

She applied for her first Irish passport the year later. To those who came of age at that time, she says, “it felt like those realisations about the complexity of identity are our particular generational thing”.

“The Good Friday Agreement – which is so imperilled – I think it brought possibility and hope and plurality to a whole generation.”

Just as she is a Belfast writer – “in that sort of layered, different-labelled way” – she is also a Northern Irish writer: “I have both passports but none of them ever feels completely right, and I think identifying as Northern Irish is something that’s particularly of that band of us that were that Good Friday Agreement coming of age.”

The Belfast Blitz was a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe in April and May 1941. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
The Belfast Blitz was a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe in April and May 1941. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

This sense of complex, multiple identities informs all Caldwell’s writing. The stories in her first short story collection, Multitudes, are told by girls and young women between Belfast and London. Her latest collection, Intimacies, is similarly “a book about being caught between here and there, a condition which is so familiar to so many of us who still call Northern Ireland home even though we’ve lived much of our adult lives away”.

“At first it felt like a lack, and then I realised that was what I had. You work with the material you’ve got.” Of Multitudes, she says: “If I had stayed maybe I would have written something else but I wouldn’t have written those stories.”

Her description of the story that won her the BBC National Short Story Award, All the People were Mean and Bad, could stand for all her work; it is about “closenesses” but also “distances, the distance between where you came from and where you end up, who you think you are and who you turn out to be. All those distances, real and metaphorical and metaphysical”.

This was learned in childhood; she recalls as a girl struggling to answer questions posed by “pen pals who wanted to know what it was like growing up in a war zone, being in the midst of a bomb”.

“I grew up in leafy east Belfast and I had ballet lessons and ice-skating lessons and in lots of ways it was a very normal childhood, and then how do your reconcile that with the girl in my P6 class whose father was murdered, or the time you are stuck in bomb scares or there’s a bomb scare phoned in to your school, or we were swimming and there was a bomb scare and we had to get out of the pool in November and be wrapped in tinfoil blankets.

“At the same time you feel you didn’t grow up at the front line and so you feel guilt at laying claim to any kind of Troubles experience and yet there are all these elements that are just not a normal childhood, so it’s how you come to terms with that.”

She still feels “completely torn…guilty for having left” yet also “so angry” at the poverty which persists in the North, the lack of investment in the arts – which is lower per capita in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in these island – and that almost 25 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement integrated education is still the exception rather than the norm.

I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality

“You look at the sheer number of children in somewhere like Derry especially who are living below the poverty line and you think, if they don’t have an education and if they don’t have artistic outlets for their soul and for their expression…you can see how the old sectarian myths appeal because they give an explanation and a sense of belonging.

“You can see how young people can get sucked into something,” she says. “I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality, and that was the case for the civil rights marches of the 1960s and I think it’s still the case now.”

When she began writing some of the stories that eventually became Multitudes, more than a decade before they were published in 2016, “I never believed that those stories of Belfast girlhood were of value to anyone because they’re not the sort of stories that people seemed to want of Belfast of that place and time…especially in England, people expect you to write about the Troubles or a particular type of story and it can feel impossible to tell other stories.”

This extends to the way in which writers from Northern Ireland are often defined. She accepts she is regarded as a Protestant author, even though she was never baptised into any religion and her parents – who were in a mixed marriage – stopped practising their faiths as they felt it was the only way they could bring up children in that time and place.

“It’s that sense of narrative collapse. People want to see me as a Protestant writer, why? Because I’m not overtly Catholic?

“My mum is from a big Irish Catholic family in England and she went to convent school, and the nuns insisted they all speak in RP English accents so when she came to Belfast of course having an English accent is seen as like upper class aspirational Protestantism, and that wasn’t my mum’s background at all.

“I find it sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing, and constantly of interest the way those definitions are used to narrow someone or box someone [in] and I’m always interested in the complications or the untold stories – the multiplicity.”

It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there

In the years since, those multiplicities have become much more apparent. “It feels amazing to be part of this huge wave of writers [from Northern Ireland],” says Caldwell. “You build on things that other people do and it makes you up your game and there’s a sense of being in conversation, or even on a sort of shared enterprise that feels really exciting.

“I said earlier [in the interview] that it’s opened the floodgates, but it’s blasted open the possibilities for other writers.”

Nowadays, she says, in place of that “received narrative” of Troubles fiction there is “space for so many stories”; she singles out writers like Darran Anderson, Michelle Gallen, Kerri ní Dochartaigh and the “masterpiece” of Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman.

“There are so many writers who are writing to a world-class standard,” she says. Wendy Erskine, a short story writer and Caldwell’s sixth form English teacher, “is one of the greats, and even young writers like Dara McAnulty, I think he is so impressive in writing nature.”

Yet she resists the idea that Northern Ireland is experiencing a literary awakening. “I’m always quite wary of that…I think of people like Jennifer Johnson, Deirdre Madden, Anne Devlin, this whole generation of women who were writing at a time when it was much tougher to be a women writer.

“So it’s not that the writers haven’t always been there, it’s the sort of attention that gets paid to them.

“It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there and they’re keen to read more.”

Indeed, for writers from Northern Ireland that multiplicity of identities and experiences may just be their greatest strength. “I think it’s so complex and so rich and not resolvable into any one thing, and different in a really exciting, dynamic way for so many writers” – not least Caldwell herself.