Londonderry passes muster with Hitchens shock!

Just as the final programme for UK City of Culture is announced, I can’t resist posting a piece by the polemicist Peter Hitchens on my native city – and  Cof I cathedral.  I was ready to wince and play the pedantic fact checker throughout. But Peter interrogated himself as unsparingly as he did the history and captured the essence of the old city at least, well enough. Unusually for Peter, he even ended on a note of reconciliation.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Henry94

    Is this the reconciliation bit?

    Perhaps, once we’ve shaken off the EU, all four British peoples can find a new constitutional arrangement in which nobody’s pride is trampled on.

    What do the Hitchens’ and The Beatles have in common?

  • Hitchens is clearly not happy with ‘Derry’ and of course he is not the only one. But surely we could relax a little about the name and thus avoid the slightly ludicrous situation on Radio 4’s Front Row last night when every reference to the city was ‘Derry/Londonderry’ or to the untrained ear, ‘Derrylondonderry’. Unlike Hitchens, I was brought up on the name Derry rather Londonderry essentially as the abbreviation of a rather long name. This was not seen as an assault on the part of my family’s identity that is protestant. I look forward to the day when unionists learn to relax and talk about Derry much as the English do not insist on the full ‘Barrow-in Furness’ or ‘Ashby de la Zouche’ in everyday speech, and when nationalists similarly relax and come to terms with the fact that the London livery companies played a huge role in the city (for good or ill) and that erasing London from the name makes as much sense as renaming Wexford or Strangford as a way of getting our own back on the Vikings.

  • Derry ~ Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013 website, including the programme of events. Although BT is the official sponsor, it still hasn’t got around to amending its logo as it did for the Olympics.

  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    John – Why are the Indians renaming their cities? If you live in a city and dont like the name, have the majority backing – change it. Noone should be beholden to history.

  • Brian Walker

    Oh, can we not move on from the name thing? Done to death and destruction surely,

  • Kevsterino

    Even sticking the names together would start another argument, I think. DerryLondonderry vs LondonderryDerry.

    If not an eternal city, it is at least an eternal argument of the name of a city.

    It seems to me the name is up to the folks that live there and nobody else should complain with whatever choice they make.

    I know I don’t understand something there. It seems so simple.

  • Ruarai

    “This stupid quarrel has gone on long enough, has been exploited by the worst to the grievous loss of the best, and benefits none of us.”

    Ireland has long been amused by the sheer confidence of visiting Englishmen who proscribe, unabashed, the answers to our problems. It never seems to occur that the primary problem in Ireland has always been exactly this behavior – most recently resurrected by Peter Hitchens’ lessons on and from Derry. As a case study on the thankfully almost extinct colonial mentality in England, Hitchens’ piece rivals any you might find from the 1800s through to the 1950s, a feature, incidentally, that he probably finds agreeable.

    Like all fine colonial writing, the author’s depiction of place – in this case Derry – is strangely, if perhaps necessarily, bereft of descriptions of local people.

    Descriptions of interactions with the locals are sparser still but when they show up – We were slowed down on the way through Dungiven by a Republican demonstration (no police visible) – it’s with the time-tested colonial objective of reinforcing the notion that locals are frequently dangerous and hostile, thereby simultaneously sowing the justifications for both the past and continuing military presence.

    Moreover since no actual named locals show up, only shadowy outlines of a sinister, dangerous and unwelcoming presence – “[Derry]…still has a lot of bad patches…pubs emitting angry republican songs, with more of an air of menace than of welcome, at least for this visitor” – Hitchens’ Daily Mail readership could be forgiven for concluding that locals are an unfortunate distraction from what otherwise would be a great wee holiday destination. Ya’know, if it weren’t for the Irish, Ireland could have been a great wee resort.

    Not unconvinced? Consider this line from Hitchens’s reflections on our belatedly reformed and remade police service:
    The Irish Harp sits in the corresponding spot on the right, meaning who knows what.

    I won’t insult the intelligence of the Slugger readership by dwelling on what might explain this mystery. What’s striking here is Hitchens’ own distain and disinterest in the origins and intended meaning of placing it on the community policing uniform.

    As one of the few people I know who has read Peter Hitchen’s “The Broken Compass” – which I recommend, less for his argument’s merit than for its rootedness and unapologetic tone; Hitchens may not know what he wants in tomorrow’s Britain but he is one of the few who appreciates what has been lost – I’m surprised by the rank colonial cliché of this piece.

    Hampered by a tone of smothering, untakable sympathy rather than any sustained attempt to empathize, what his writing on “poor old Ireland” (actual quote) lacks in humility – and I think he was trying to be humble – is almost redeemed by the sheer effrontery of its quaintness.

    My opening quote was Hitchens’ concluding thought on the “Irish Question”. But why do generations of English writers speak of an Irish “Question”? After all, like Hitchens, despite asking few questions, of locals or of themselves, they’re quick to proscribe the answers.

    And what was Hitchens answer to this “stupid quarrel”?

    Answer: The whole of Ireland back under the crown, i.e. the very antithesis of Irish Nationalism and therefore not much of a leap from assuming the Irish right to self-determination was and is both silly and the prime cause of conflict.

    As his late brother said of his father’s suggestion that Ireland simply needed a good dose of martial law, it’s not as though that’s never been tried before.

    Peter, next time you come to Ireland, take a dander into those angry pubs, ask a few questions, and make a few friends. You’ll enjoy yourself. You’re a welcome guest. But relax a bit.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    I grew up on the waterside of Derry remarkably naive to the politics around me and still to this day begrudge those who refer to Derry as having been some sort of epicenter of the troubles. It wasn’t. For most of the late 80s and 90s that I can remember, the most exposure I had was army checkpoints on the bridge.

    That’s not to say sectarianism didn’t exist. It did. But the river formed a de facto peace line, so it never managed to manifest itself like say, Belfast.

    My earliest act of organised charity (and I guess by extension cross community engagement) was a sponsored walk around the walls organised by my school and some others to raise money for St. Columb’s cathedral (again I had no idea at the time it was a particular denomination, it was just a rustic old building in the middle of town). It was that day, and later on other visits to CoI churches, that I noticed union flags and references to earthly dwellers such as the queen.

    It always stuck in my mind because as I got older I’ve come to respect the broader global anglican communion as one of the more respectable faith-based institutions in the world as they genuinely seem to be vocal on issues of poverty, and have managed since Gene Robinson to discuss gay issues in a grown up way despite, the evangelists around them screaming gospel verses across billboards before a Ted Haggard comes roaring out of the closet.

    So with that background I could never reconcile that with acts of national servitude to immortalise a mere earth dweller like the queen and kaleidoscopic set of morals embodied by a national parliament. It stood in stark contrast to a catholic church which for all it’s problems, managed to keep references to national events out of the pews. I remember a notable case in recent years were a prominent republican was being buried at St. Eugene’s an senior republican (possibly McGuinness but not sure) thanked the priest for allowing them to keep the tricolour on the coffin as it entered the cathedral. That really rankled with a lot of the regular mass-going people for whom the church was a place above petty squabbles.

    I’ve never agreed with much of Peter’s views, sometimes I think he has a complex from spending so much of his life in his late
    brother’s shadow that he adopted almost every position he could that opposed his brother, including opposing the war in Iraq as an ardent conservative when his self-described socialist brother was a strident supporter!

    I’m glad he enjoyed his stay nonetheless and would like to see him and many others come and explore the place a little more.

  • Kevrestino Of course the unionist politicians who show their neurotic obsessions would agree the the wish of the majority should apply in this case, but only if they were the majority and since they know the outcome of such a democratic method, they won’t agree.

  • Brian Walker. It’s amusing that unioinsts reject an English imposed name which rolls smartly off the tongue, in favour of a post reformation imposed name which is cumbersome and has zero empathy with the city. This is typically reactionary since they seem to have decided that since the catholic majority came to accept the English imposed name, it can’t be acceptable to themselves, just as the support for Palestininan cause brought the knee-jerk support for Israel.

  • Harry Flashman

    Perhaps Brian could enlighten those of us who are rather more familiar with Peter Hitchens’ writings than he clearly is what the “shock” referred to in the heading of this thread is.

    Having read the article there is nothing remotely shocking about it, Hitchens writes about many of his usual themes from ugly commercial architecture to the beauty of the Anglican evensong service, these are perfectly normal points of reference for Hictchens.

    Hitchens is an unashamed British nationalist and unionist, he is a small “c” conservative and traditionalist, he loathes the European Union though not fellow Europeans whom he rather admires, is sympathetic to the Irish cause, but his desired solution and a pipe-dream as he readily acknowledges, is a reunited and fairer United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and has written sympathetically about the appalling nature of the crime committed on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday, rightly pointing out that if it had happened in another British city like Stirling or Macclesfield it would have brought down the government of the day.

    So far nothing remotely to “shock”.

    His statement that there are still some dodgy areas in Derry with rough bars? Hmmm, I’m from Derry and can confirm he’s on the mark with that one. That the badge of the PSNI is a complete, meaningless dog’s breakfast of a design? He’s not alone in that opinion. His preference for the term “Londonderry”? He deals with that upfront, that was the name he was brought up to associate with the city, his father was a perambulating officer in the Royal Navy and I dare say both Hitchens brothers would have been familiar with that particular port in the days of their youth in the 1950’s and 60’s.

    Not much to to be shocked about so far I have to tell you in this well written, sympathetic essay.

    Maybe it was his accurate description of the train journey along the north coast into Derry as one of the best in these islands (he has clearly visited Derry before then)? No that’s pretty accurate.

    So the shock is apparently for an ex-BBC man that a right-wing “polemicist” (one of those dog whistle terms along with “controversial” introduced by lefties to indicate that they hate the writer’s politics) can write clearly, with feeling and sympathy and accurately, that seems to be the sum total of the shock for Brian Walker.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru


    Nothing that I read was particularly shocking to me either. However perhaps one of the things that was surprising was that he wasn’t even more scathing than we’re used to.

    The statement that there are a few rough bars is true. But the only ‘republican’ bar I can think of remotely close to the city center is Peadar O’Donnell’s, and most of the time its just a place for irish trad music. I’ve only been in there a few times, but I just found it to be a half-decent live music venue as opposed to an “angry republican bar”.

    But every other comment was par for the course for Hitchens.

  • I believe the channel four youth soap, ‘Hollyoaks is set to shoot scenes for a forthcoming plot in stroke city to be scrrened next year presumably. I’ve visited the city the series is set in, [Chester], which has well preserved walls as well, but from Roman times.

  • galloglaigh


    And again, not a dickie bird.

    I don’t want to, nor am I trying to annoy you, but I’ve been singled out on a number of occasions, while black carded users continue to wind people up unabated. Some of the comments here are beyond contempt…

  • galloglaigh

    That comment is on the wrong thread, I’ll repost as appropriate!