When the world’s your canvas
Proof of civilization!
They say that the test of a civilized society is how it treats its prisoners. I’ve no doubt that’s the case but I have set my own yardstick for the cultural health of a civilization: the vitality of its independent bookshops.
Yes, bookshops. Remember them? Places where hulking great blocks of repurposed forest are sold to discerning patrons keen to feed the soul. I have my own Belfast favourites: An Ceathrú Póilí in that West Belfast Gaeilge oasis An Chultúrlann which boasts a dizzying array of books in Irish and, less prominently, in English. I love the fact that its name translates as The Fourth Policeman in a nod to Strabane Gaeilgeoir and literary mischief-maker Flann O’Brien.
And then there’s No Alibis in the University Quarter — God save us from any more quarters — where crime writers get pride of place. Of late, No Alibis has become a redoubt of the city’s literary life with book launches, movies and readings. I have taken to contacting the store via their simple but welcoming website and ordering books that have caught my eye.
I know Amazon could do with the business but supporting local gives me a warm feeling and keeps the wolf from the bookshop door.
And when my order comes in, it gives me a chance to visit No Alibis again to browse the bulging bookshelves and wonder how anyone could possibly prefer e-books to the real McCoy.
And speaking of the real, real thing, it was a pleasure today to visit the annual Mela festival of culture where our minority communities — led by Nisha Tandon of India and, for the past four decades and more, Belfast — show us how to really let our hair down. The rain should have dampened spirits but I found the Mela faithful turned out in large numbers in the Botanic Gardens today to sample the global cuisine on offer and enjoy fab bands from every art and part.
So add that to our list: a city’s success should also be measured by the position it affords its minorities. Today, Belfast passed that test with flying colours.
There’s always tomorrow, of course, but we’ll face that challenge too with Gandhi’s riposte ringing in our ears, when he was asked what he thought about western civilization. “I think it would be a very good idea.”