Monday, June 18, 2012

[1386] divis flats

Photo by Judah Passow
I don't know how many times I walked past the RBG Gallery on my way from point A to point B without ever actually noticing it. It's a tiny joint, tucked away in what's not even substantial enough to be called an alley, behind another shop front that renders the gallery just short of invisible to the passerby. Today, though, I noticed it. Or, more accurately, I noticed a little folding sign on the street out front. Something about Divis Flats, 1982. Free admission. The price was right and I'm more than a little fascinated by Divis Flats.

What I found inside was a gallery of photos untarnished by sentimentality. This was not the kind of place where you looked at the pictures and thought, "Well, gosh, there were some hard times during the Troubles, but boy, did they have their fun." A lot of times we all gloss over the ugly bits of the past, especially for the sake of making a better future. This gallery did no such thing.

A message from a former resident of Divis Flats, Robin Livingstone, hung on several of the walls in the gallery, and I think it was both poignant and poetic. I'm posting it here, and hopefully not stepping on any toes to do so. If you live in Belfast, I would recommend seeing the exhibit for yourself. If not, check out the websites of the photographers, Frankie Quinn and Judah Passow.

Photo by Judah Passow
When my old pal Frankie Quinn showed me Judah Passow’s Divis Flats portfolio for a feature we were preparing for the paper on the exhibition, the pictures gave me a jolt like an adrenalin syringe in the sternum. This wasn’t the usual here-today-gone-tomorrow photographer’s work we were so used to seeing. This wasn’t a guy who had got a taxi from the Europa, shot off a roll in a half-hour and then got back to the hotel in time for dinner. This was the Flats I knew and didn’t love. This was the place I used to live. These were the people I used to know.

Viewing the images, I heard again the shrieks of children playing on the concrete dragon; smelled the piss on the concrete stairs; saw the little black eyes of the rats shining from the blocked-up rubbish chutes; felt the ever-present faint sting in my eyes of the CS gas that stuck to the balcony walls and ceilings.

Divis Flats was a grim place when our flat was new in 1970; it was a grimmer place when we moved out a year later. Behind the egg-box walls and doors we turned the TV up so we couldn’t hear the TV next door, or the toilet flushing. Our TV never covered the sound of the shooting.Divis Flats was not a story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, no matter what anybody tells you. Divis Flats won. Divis Flats beat us – it beat everybody who ever walked backwards up those pissy steps hauling a sofa. That’s why these pictures punched me in the stomach. They’re pictures of people fighting and people losing; sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing – but losing, and losing badly. And we lost, of course, because the game was rigged.

I’m nine and I’m walking along the balcony near our Pound Walk flat. There’s a big guy with a washing machine perched precariously on the balcony ledge. He’s balancing the washing machine and trying to look down at the same time. I skip up and straddle the ledge with practised ease. There’s a British Army foot patrol 30 feet down and, as usual, they’re looking skywards as they walk. They think the washing machine is somebody moving in and on they come. They’re below us now and the big guy doesn’t have to push the washing machine, he just lets it go. It falls, the flex snaking after it, the plug smashing against the concrete. The soldiers take a step back and watch it. The washing machine disintegrates as it hits the ground. The big fella is still there, his two hands on the ledge, peering down, like Kilroy in the graffiti. The soldiers look up at him and me and they start laughing because they’re glad the washing machine didn’t explode. I suppose they don’t shoot me because I’m wearing shorts. The big guy laughs and I’m laughing too. I’m laughing the way everybody laughed in Divis Flats – like if you didn’t you’d throw yourself off the balcony.

That was my Divis Flats – the Divis Flats Judah Passow’s camera captured.

Quote taken from