The past is not such a foreign country when it is brought back darkly to life

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The past is not such a foreign country when it is brought back darkly to life

This year’s Booker winner captures forensically that sense of a community watching and judging


DISTURBINGLY RELEVANT READ: Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘Milkman’. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA
DISTURBINGLY RELEVANT READ: Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘Milkman’. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA

A photograph was needed to publicise my first novel, so I went to have it taken standing on waste ground in Belfast’s nationalist Ardoyne district wearing a white Union Jack T shirt, purely for mischief.

That was the early 2000s, but even then I remember thinking: “For God’s sake, man, get a move on. I’m sticking out like a sore thumb here.” There was a time not long before that when doing so at all would have been impossible. There’s an incident in Milkman, the novel by Ardoyne-born Anna Burns which last week became the first by a Northern Irish writer to win the Booker Prize, in which the narrator’s “maybe-boyfriend”, a car mechanic, brings home part of the engine of a classic Blower Bentley racing car, only for a local republican headcase to make trouble for him because this particular car traditionally had that contentious red, white and blue flag on the side of the door.

The emblem is not even on the bit of machine the young man brings home, but it’s enough for him to be noticed and found suspect in that “great Seventies hatred” in which Burns’s novel is set. It was not a place, or time, when drawing attention to yourself was a particularly good idea.

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