Class and Representation
In July 2018 I was organising Woodvale Festival, which saw for the first time a number of major concerts featuring international artists playing live at a July bonfire celebration. The 11th July concert was headlined by Heather Small, who found fame as the lead singer of popular 90s dance act M People before enjoying a successful solo career. The concert a number of days earlier had featured a host of artists associated with Clubland Live and brought an excitement to the area that hadn’t been seen for some time. During the week over 10,000 people attended events associated with Woodvale Festival. Given the controversy that continues to surround July bonfires — that summer saw Belfast City Council launch legal proceedings in the east of the city — the events at Woodvale Festival seemed unimaginable, and in a large part down to the positive leadership shown at a local level by community leaders and organisations such as Twaddell and Woodvale Residents’ Association. It is also worth remembering, that only a few years earlier the area saw the large scale protests and disorder associated with the parade dispute on Crumlin Road. A community that had been unjustly stigmatised across the media was demonstrating both its resilience and a new way forward, one which continued with further successful concerts and events in July 2019.
Following the 2018 festival, one of the artists who had visited from England to deliver a programme of music workshops with young people, asked to see the 12th July parades in Belfast. That evening, starting on the Lisburn Road, we walked down to Shaftesbury Square — the area associated with the loudest and most boisterous celebrations. In the past the area had seen disorder and fighting, and is often presented as the location of the worst of the drunken behaviour associated with the 12th July. It was the first time I had been to Shaftesbury Square for the parade, and with the broken glass, drunkenness, shouting and singing, I could see why some people would view it negatively. My companion, who I expected to be unsettled by the experience actually seemed to be enjoying it, and when I asked him what he thought, he replied that, “I couldn’t imagine anything like this being allowed anywhere else, but it’s just people having fun on their own terms”. I understood exactly what he meant — people could drink and be entertained, close to their own homes without having to spend a fortune. It was something anyone could join in regardless of how much money they had, a day in the year it was possible to have fun and forget about the daily pressures of living on a low income. The 11th July bonfire celebrations the night before provide exactly the same opportunity — a good night out.
As part of the July 2018 Woodvale Festival, The Caravan Gallery were commissioned to develop a series of photographs of the festival and wider celebrations. Their images, a selection of which feature in this publication, capture a sense of community, cultural celebration and working-class people having fun on their own terms, and provide a context for re-evaluating, at least in some way, how we understand the July celebrations. It is worth considering here Steve Baker’s (2015) remarks, “Loyalism’s stout allegiances and noisy public manifestations make it anathema in this new dispensation, where the preferred form of cultural expression is that of individual, consumer lifestyle choices”. While there is obvious justification for the antipathy and intolerance towards the sectarianism which is sometimes associated with the 11th and 12th of July celebrations, the element of class bias in this antipathy should not go unrecognised. Those who deem themselves more respectable, find the sight of working-class people getting drunk and having fun as distasteful and vulgar, undermining attempts to market an image of a sleek and aspirational region. The irony is, that despite the ire and distaste towards the 11th and 12th July, both the bonfires and parades provide a source of immense interest from people all over the world and attract many visitors — and not only those who come from communities in Scotland to take part.