By Alan Meban
I don’t remember much about the first house I lived in other than the rather jolly bin lorry driver who sucked his thumb. In hindsight, he was probably just copying what three-year-old me was doing, the results of which can still be seen if you spot that the shape of my chewed right thumb doesn’t quite match its opposite number.
We soon moved to what was to become just the first of a whole series of somewhat impractical split-level properties I’ve lived in. Built at the top of a slope, it looked like a tiny bungalow from the road. I remember repeatedly slipping and falling down the wooden stairs that led to the basement bedrooms hidden below, each looking out onto a sloping garden that required a Flymo on a rope for my Dad to cut the grass.
Earlier today, I spotted the house on a property website. Scrolling through the pictures in a personalised episode of Through the Keyhole, I can see that that 40 years later the stairs have very sensibly been carpeted. The kitchen has been modernised, removing any evidence of the chocolate cake incident of 1978 when, little by little, I nibbled bits from around the edge of a freshly-baked cake until the damage circumference and the smaller diameter could no longer be disguised.
The 1970’s beige carpet in the living room where I watched Top Cat on a black and white TV set before school has given way to modern wooden flooring. The window in my little bedroom has now been replaced with patio doors leading out onto wooden decking and the garden has been tamed with tiered flowerbeds. But the huge revelation is that I was right all along: there was a hidden room under the stairs.
As a child, the footprint of the bedroom basement seemed a lot smaller than the upstairs. A long plain wall hid what I always imagined could have been a huge windowless room, like a cave buried into the hillside. Now I can see that subsequent owners have knocked through that wall and created a room – not quite as cavernous as I’d imagined – in the void, working around a huge pillar that holds up the concrete floor of the kitchen and garage above.
While we moved a couple of times before settling somewhere for decades, every shift was planned. Possessions were carefully packed up into cardboard boxes and lifted into a removal truck. Not everyone has that experience.
“Last year’s Belfast Children’s Festival programme included the premiere of Removed, a remarkable and painfully moving piece of theatre based on the testimony of children who have experience of Northern Ireland’s care system.”
Last year’s Belfast Children’s Festival programme included the premiere of Removed, a remarkable and painfully moving piece of theatre based on the testimony of children who have experience of Northern Ireland’s care system. Making his professional stage debut, young Conor J Maguire told the story of his composite character, Adam, flitting through a succession of care homes and foster families carrying with him his black bin bags of belongings.
There was humour in Fionnuala Kennedy’s script, but the overwhelmingly sense was of Adam’s anger and frustration at being trapped in a system that wasn’t wired to hear his cries and need for belonging.
It’s a mark of how special Removed is that the team are just back from Philadelphia where Prime Cut were invited to stage it in the Culture Ireland showcase at the International Performing Arts for Youth conference, one of just three full productions chosen to represent the best of new storytelling from these shores.
One of the things theatre can do is give people a voice. Sometimes it’s a historical situation that can be re-examined after the event with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s something right under our noses that is either silenced or we lack the curiosity to find out about.
The latest government statistics show that at 31 March 2019, 3,281 children were looked after in Northern Ireland, the highest recorded number of children in care since the introduction of the Children (NI) Order 1995, and a figure that has risen by 33 per cent in the last ten years. Including Removed in the 2019 festival programme put the voices of those living, breathing children at its heart, where they belong and where they could not be ignored.
The themes of home, place and belonging are picked up again by the 2020 Belfast Children’s Festival programme. Whether it’s the non-verbal physical performance of Hermit with a shy character living in a cube, or the dance quartet exploring how we belong to community and develop private languages through the game of human Tetris, or The Untold Truth of Captain Hook which lets the villain be the hero of his own tale as audiences join him for an awfully big adventure, I’m looking forward to being challenged to think while seeing more of the very best the cultural world has to offer children and young people.
Alan is a freelance journalist and arts/politics blogger better known online as @alaninbelfast
Image credit: Prime Cut Productions