'Free and full' - Glenn Patterson, Article 29, UDHR

Brilliant Belfast writer Glenn Patterson (long-time host of the irregular literary fundraisers organised by the Belfast AI Group) will be taking part in the Amnesty International event 'Human Rights, Poetic Redress' at the Belfast Festival at Queen's this Thursday (23rd October) at 6:30pm in The Baby Grand.  

He will be joined by three other writers (Eilís Ní Dhuibne, Carlo Gébler and Kevin Barry) who have also contributed to the Amnesty / Irish Times series celebrating and responding to the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

Here's his contribution to the series, a short story first published in the Irish Times on June 21st this year, responding to Article 29 of the Declaration (“the Bakewell pissing Tart… of the Convention”).

He takes us on a literary journey from the Ormeau Road to New Delhi. Knowing Glenn, he will also have even more to say in the debate / discussion at the Baby Grand. 

More information about and tickets for the event available here. Don't miss it.   

Free and full

WEEKS HE had been looking at it. Every day, five times a day. Once or twice, waking in the early hours, he had risked the landing, past the children's bedroom doors, and switched on the lamp above his desk to look at it some more. To tell you the truth he was sorry now he had ever picked it. He said to his wife, you know the way when you were a kid and you were at a party and there was a plate of buns and you got first dibs? You know the way you'd be torn between going for the one you really wanted and the thought that there were still 10 other kids to choose after you? And they were watching you, the grown-up with the plate was watching you, and you panicked and closed your fingers around something, anything, and the plate passed on and you looked down at your hand and thought, oh, great: Bakewell pissing Tart. That's what I've done. I've picked the Bakewell Tart of the Convention.

Not that he would ever have let on to anyone but her. And then, too, he must have had something in mind when he sent the e-mail: "I'll do 29."

What he had in mind in all likelihood was the attitude, common in Northern Ireland, that rights were a zero sum game, that the granting of them to one community (a word, incidentally, which he despised) resulted in a loss of them for another, the other. Like the confrontations over Orange parades. He had once proposed that the residents of the areas the parades wanted to pass through respect the Order's right to march, while the Order respected the residents' right not to be disturbed or offended. He foresaw a stand-off while it was determined whose protection of the other's rights should prevail, but in the end, he suggested, it ought to be settled without bloodshed.

He had thought about revisiting this idea as fiction. "The Bridge" (he had Ormeau in mind, but he would abstract it from that, abstract it, if he was able, out of Northern Ireland altogether): offenders at one end, offended at the other, only halfway through the story would flip and the offenders would become the offended and vice versa. The epigraph would be a line from After the Fire, by John Hewitt: "You must give freedom if you would be free."

But he wondered if there wasn't something a little dishonest at the heart of this; whether the moment for such a story, however abstracted, had gone.

He looked at the article (tarticle) again. Five times that day, five days the next. This had all got a bit ridiculous.

It had got so ridiculous he was taking refuge in the third person.

It had got so ridiculous he was packing up to leave the country.
India. Festival. Whatever the problem, there was always a festival where you could lie low for a couple of days.

The hotel was a short distance from New Delhi airport across the road from the building site for a massive shopping mall. (He watched, as he passed, the workmen clamber up their Keystone Cop ladders, imagined the sign at the site entrance: "No hat? No boots? No problem!") Shanties of the most basic kind bordered the road in between; polythene and cardboard held together with string and populated at that time of the day almost entirely by dogs and children.

He had been briefed to expect, and if at all possible ignore, the importuning of street kids. If he gave to one he would be approached by another and another and another and even if he gave to all of them, emptied his pockets completely, there would be still others just as needy – needier – trailing after him. No, if he really wanted to help he should wait until he was home, pick a charity with the necessary experience and expertise and set up a direct debit. Not as sexy perhaps as an open wallet, but a darned sight more effective.

The first hotel room he was shown to had a walk-in shower, but no bath. He phoned the desk and asked to be moved: his back. He had told the organisers, he didn't mind where they put him so long as there was a bath. He soaked until the water turned cold, then slept as well as could be expected given the flight, the five-and-a-half-hour bounce forward in time, and the noise of the air conditioning, even on its lowest, just-about-breathable setting. Next day he passed up the offer of a sightseeing tour to practise his reading: the reason he had been asked here after all. The pool had been emptied for cleaning, but the sun-loungers were out and on colder days than this at home people took to the beaches in their droves. He locked his hands behind his head, book face down on his chest. Gardeners roamed the grounds in pairs conversing like seminarians, dropping to their knees now and then to pluck out a weed, tend to a border. Over the boundary wall the arms of the building-site cranes moved almost imperceptibly until they had told off the entire working day.

Darkness fell while he was waiting in the lobby for the car to take him to the venue. Fell was the word. One minute it was light, the next minute it wasn't. He was struck, on the journey, by how completely the roadside shanties had vanished: no electricity, of course, to announce their presence, no power of any description.

At one set of traffic lights a beggar thumped the windscreen with the stump of his amputated arm. It might have been a fly for all the notice the driver took. At the next set of lights, as though to confirm the logic of the briefing, there was a double thump: a double amputee. The driver checked a text on his mobile phone.

The reading, in a compound on the edge of the embassy district, was over in less than an hour. Someone asked him during the Q&A what he was working on and he mentioned "The Bridge" and it got a laugh and he began to think that there might be something in it after all. At the drinks reception that followed he was offered Guinness and fish tikka. "More Irish than oysters," he said, before popping the fish into his mouth. He talked to a man whose best friend was a consultant at a hospital in Belfast; agreed with him it was a small, small world. He left the Guinness alone after the first glass and moved on to white wine (more Irish these days than stout.) He left the food alone altogether, kept drinking.

On the journey back to the hotel he nodded off. He woke to a tapping on the glass by his ear. A child – girl or boy, he couldn't tell because of the plastic shower cap pulled down low on the forehead – stood by the window, chin level with the chrome rim, holding in its left hand a stick to which were attached the most half-hearted balloons he had ever seen. With the other hand the child motioned to its mouth: eat.

Instinctively he reached for his wallet, ignoring the driver who was speaking to him in English, shouting at the child in Hindi. He got the window down and pressed a note into the child's hand just as the lights changed. He and the child looked at it at the same time: 10 rupees.

They looked at each other. The driver put the car in gear and stepped on the accelerator.

Back in the hotel he sat at the bar doing sums in his notebook. The answers kept coming out the same: about 12½p, 10 rupees. He charged the drinks to his room rather than have to face for the moment how much his three gins came to. He didn't bother with a bath.

He woke in the night and thought about calling a taxi, retracing his route, see could he find the child. (The shower cap ought to help. What was that, anyway? Protection? Decoration?) Make up the 10 rupees at the very least to whatever he'd spent in the bar. And as he lay there arguing the toss with himself he picked up the notebook again from the bedside table and started to write: the landing at home, the buns, the briefing, the reading, the child in the shower cap with the limp balloons, the expression on its face as it looked at the banknote.

Day was already breaking by the time he set the notebook down and lay back satisfied that he had at least done something, discharged his writer's duty.

But when he read over what he had written two mornings later on the taxi ride to the airport he didn't think he had done enough at all. Not nearly enough.

And neither do I.

Article 29
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of their personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of their rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

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