The Coasters

In the light of recent rioting in Lurgan and the Short Strand/Mountpottinger interface in East Belfast, the murders of soldiers and a policeman earlier in the year and the many manifestations of impasse at Stormont, the fact that this year is the 40th Anniversary of the start of the most recent batch of "troubles" in this little piece of green real estate should give us pause to reflect... Especially those who think that we have nothing to do with all of that... Last week at a meeting someone gave me a copy of this poem by John Hewitt, written in 1969... Some of us have continued coasting from then to the present day... Indeed in many ways Hewitt's analysis is even more pertinent today...

You coasted along
To larger houses, gadgets, more machines
To golf and weekend bungalows,
Caravans when the children were small,
the Mediterranean, later, with the wife.

You did not go to Church often,
Weddings were special;
But you kept your name on the books
Against eventualities;
And the parson called, or the curate.

You showed a sense of responsibility,
With subscriptions to worthwhile causes
And service in voluntary organisations;
And, anyhow, this did the business no harm,
No harm at all.
Relations were improving. A good
useful life. You coasted along.

You even had a friend of two of the other sort,
Coasting too: your ways ran parallel.
Their children and yours seldom met, though,
Being at different schools.
You visited each other, decent folk with a sense
Of humour. Introduced, even, to
One of their clergy. And then you smiled
In the looking-glass, admiring, a
Little moved by, your broadmindedness.
Your father would never have known
One of them. Come to think of it,
When you were young, your own home was never
Visited by one of the other sort.

Relations were improving. The annual processions
began to look rather like folk-festivals.

When that noisy preacher started,
he seemed old-fashioned, a survival.
Later you remarked on his vehemence,
a bit on the rough side.
But you said, admit, you said in the club,
‘You know, there’s something in what he says’.

And you who seldom had time to read a book,
what with reports and the colour-supplements,
denounced censorship.
And you who never had an adventurous thought
were positive that the church of the other sort
vetoes thought.
And you who simply put up with marriage
for the children’s sake, deplored
the attitude of the other sort
to divorce.
You coasted along.
And all the time, though you never noticed,
The old lies festered;
the ignorant became more thoroughly infected;
there were gains, of course;
you never saw any go barefoot.

The government permanent, sustained
by the regular plebiscites of loyalty.
You always voted but never
put a sticker on your car;
a card in the window
would not have been seen from the street.
Faces changed on posters, names too, often,
but the same families, the same class of people.
A Minister once called you by your first name.
You coasted along
and the sores supperated and spread.

Now the fever is high and raging;
Who would have guessed it, coasting along?
The ignorant-sick thresh about in delirium
And tear at the scabs with dirty finger-nails.
The cloud of infection hangs over the city,
A quick change of wind and it
Might spill over the leafy suburbs.
You coasted along.

John Hewitt 1969


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