Let us bury our differences and dance

The journey I have been commissioned to make by Channel 4 throughout England (with a detour to the Outer Hebrides) is finally over. Forty days and 40 nights, my tour of England yielded not one white tribe, but several - North and South, rich and poor (I mean blinding poverty), shades of whiteness, huge gender differences, home boys and girls, those whose abode is here and minds are elsewhere, hunters and the hunted . . . a kaleidoscope, in short, of social groups and distinct personalities. At times it was wickedly exciting, at others dull and despairing. At the end, my original sentiment of this green and rather pleasant land stands: with all her flaws, I love her still.

And as the withdrawal symptoms haunted empty days, a sweet twist of fate took me to Ireland - the North, if you please: the John Hewitt Society invited me to deliver the "keynote" speech at its summer school in the heavenly glens of Antrim.

Antrim was all I expected. The school was situated in an old country house, overlooking the Irish Sea, against a backdrop draped in intense foliage. The poet John Hewitt had marked his territory by systematically avoiding the religious cauldron that is Ulster. For him, religious strife in Northern Ireland concealed other differences - of class, and between landlords and tenant farmers. Today, the Glenns, a summer school in his name, draws from both sides of Christianity and both sides of the border. Middle-aged men who had witnessed the terror of the time, even participated in its gory detail, attended the summer school under the sponsorship of local councils and other bodies: they sat for a week and were lectured on history, art and philosophy.

Ulster Defence Association hardliners, now softened by the dread of pointless murders, Catholics from the south and apostates from the IRA shared views, danced, sang and recited poetry. Tough working-class Catholics, nuns and priests, judges and ex-cons and victims of Castlereagh were turned into poets and playwrights under the teasing gaze of Urick O'Connor and that wry Englishman, Bernard Crick.

The theme of this year's summer school was "Dancing with Others", and in my speech I stuck to this huge metaphor for close to an hour, beginning with that vicious encounter between two civilisations on the west coast of Africa 500 years ago.

I have long abjured any sentimentality about slavery: both sides had simultaneously discovered this heinous trade in human flesh. Yet even then, when the sugar and cotton plantations of the Caribbean and America's deep south were filled for the first time with slaves, dancing united black and white, Englishmen and Africans. Makeshift dancing halls would replace slaves' quarters at night. The drums rolled and the people swayed. Those of us from Africa lost our own original culture in dances with death and dances with harmony. Yet we rapidly gained something new, mastered it, conquered immeasurable difficulties which loom much larger in the scheme of history than the bitter Stephen Lawrence debacle.

This, then, was my speech to the people in Antrim. My audience listened intently, clapped their hands and stamped their feet.

Together we spent long nights with Bush (Irish whiskey) chased with Guinness, and everybody had to perform. I became an instant stand-up comedian one night, a crooner another and a poet on yet another occasion - all experienced through the haze of alcohol.

Men told me tales of blood and thunder, and recalled personalities so extraordinary and bizarre that they wouldn't appear in a modern novel. Old ideas were challenged with passion, never with ferocity. After 30 years they had become tired of war, worn down by the rhetoric of their leaders.

Somewhere beneath Gerry Adams and David Trimble, a dance of harmony is at large. It may surface sooner rather than later.

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