Tom Paulin

Late July, hot and humid, I set out for Belfast via the small Shropshire town of Wem. Why Wem? Well, I’m working on a book about William Hazlitt, and feel the need to walk some of the ground he trod. His father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, ministered to a small ‘decayed’ Presbyterian congregation here. Hazlitt spent part of his childhood and youth in a house in Noble Street. The small meeting-house beside it is now a hotel garage, but it’s the site of one of the most famous moments in English – perhaps I should say British – Romantic prose. Here, Hazlitt painted his father’s portrait – the old Irish radical holds an open book which his son says is Shaftesbury’s Characteristics, an early work of aesthetics. He spent many days on the portrait, and one evening he laid down his brushes to go for a walk. It was then that he heard the news of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and in a state of huge, irrecoverable elation saw the evening star set ‘over the poor man’s cottage’. It’s a Wordsworthian spot of time, a historical moment in the prose Prelude which Hazlitt’s readers assemble from his collected works. Out of piety and curiosity I wanted to see where it happened and to walk the road to Shrewsbury, where Hazlitt set out in 1798 for the momentous meeting with Coleridge which liberated his imagination and enabled him to become one of the masters of English prose style. Though he calls that year ‘the year of Demogorgon’, it’s not a date that strikes any historical chord in England now. And neither does the name Wem. It seems appropriate that this neglected figure should have grown up in this sleepy forgotten town.

After Wem, Birmingham, where I caught a plane to Belfast’s new harbour airport. It wasn‘t a random juxtaposition of places: the Rev. Hazlitt’s family were from the North of Ireland, and at some level my interest in his son’s writings must issue from a recognition that their combative Whig mentality and natural jouissance are rooted far back in the Ulster Enlightenment, especially in the work of Francis Hutcheson, the Ulster-Scots philosopher who is known as the founder of the Scottish Enlightenment (Hutcheson’s aesthetics and Shaftesbury’s are closely linked).

Flying over the Isle of Man, then down Belfast’s blue sea-lough to the concrete apron on the sloblands, the names Hazlitt, Haislett, Haslett, run through my mind. They came from Scotland, and brought their Presbyterianism to Ireland, North America, England. I’ve become very interested in the family over the last few years, but that’s not why I’ve come to Belfast. I’m here to make a short film about the Ulster Scots tongue for BBC Northern Ireland. There’s quite a bit of interest in Ulster Scots just now – a society called Ullans (short for Ulster Lallans) has been formed. There’s a magazine, lectures and editions of the weaver poets who wrote in Ulster Scots. A dictionary is due out. There are no surviving monolingual speakers and it has no songs, but there are poems and a whole mentalité which is a distinctive part of the province’s culture.

The first night, I sit up with the film’s director, David Hammond, adding bits to the script. We’re in the sunroom, as he calls it – a big glass-domed upstairs sitting-room at the back of his house. Purple summer dark, stars, streetlights climbing Divis, or the Black Mountain, as it’s called. We stare out at the mountain and drink glasses of Powers. Now and then there’s a silence, pause, a moment of contemplation, a gap. It’s like being inside a double bowl – the glass dome, then the city ringed by hills. A line of Lowell’s – ‘this sweet volcanic cone’ – comes to mind, except it’s not sweet inside the cone, because somewhere in that darkness, out there on the slopes of Divis, are buried the bodies of more than twenty IRA victims. Now the relatives of Ulster’s disappeared are demanding details of where the remains of their loved ones are located. This campaign has developed since the ceasefire, but no bodies have been exhumed yet. The mountain is a giant unmarked grave.

Now, near the first anniversary of the ceasefire, Ulster has a strangely lulled feeling, I begin to think. The excitement of the peace – palpable in the early months – is starting to ebb. Something is bottoming out, and now and then this lulledness infiltrates our talk and we fall silent. It’s a bit like stopping halfway across a dried-up river-bed, or looking round the sides of a maybe extinct volcano. I’m meditating on this when there’s a ring at the door. David goes to answer it and returns with a tall grey-haired man in his later fifties whom I’ve never met before but whose face is almost familiar. ‘Tom, meet the Reverend William Haslett,’ he says.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in