Book Review: A Belfast Child

‘I didn’t or couldn’t differentiate between IRA and ordinary Catholics…’

When visiting a new place, I like to try and immerse myself in the culture a little bit before I arrive. As my wife and I are visiting Belfast next week, this has meant listening to The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, re-watching Belfast and reading John Chambers’ extraordinary tale of growing up as a Loyalist at the height of the troubles in 1970s Belfast. And what a fascinating tale it is…

Chronicling his early life on the notorious streets of Glencairn and Shankhill, A Belfast Child is an unflinching but warm account of divided loyalties and constant conflict. The accounts of violence from both sides of the religious and cultural divide are genuinely harrowing, but this is not a depressing book, rather A Belfast Child is a tale of hope. The passages in which the young Chambers discovers that the Catholics who share his city are not the demonic villains they have been made out to be are both poignant and resonant, and the descriptions of family life had me laughing one minute and crying the next.

The latter half of the book explores Chambers’ move to London, and his annoyance at the utter indifference felt about the Troubles by those that are supposed to be loyal to Belfast and the crown. The vivid descriptions of London in the ’80s are just as wonderful as those of Belfast, and Chambers’ love of Paul Weller and mod culture generally is both infectious and compelling.

Belfast is a very different place now to the one described in A Belfast Child, but the community spirit and shared experiences remain, as do the scars, both metaphorical and literal. For anyone interested in reading a more authentic account of life in the midst of a war than will be found in any dusty history textbook, Chambers’ book is a great starting point.