It is August 2007, and the warm sunshine has brought crowds of Saturday shoppers into the city centre. Belfast’s new cathedral of consumerism, Victoria Square, is not yet open to worshippers. As the complex nears completion the excitement is palpable: you cannot wait to get in there. The Square will host the biggest House of Fraser ever built; next summer you will be able to pay £160 for a Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt in the sales. Although the Credit Crunch has begun it still seems like a distant problem: something for bankers to fret over; something you hear about on the news but ignore. It is irrelevant; you have never heard of Collateralised Debt Obligations or Credit Default Swaps. Like thunder and sheeting rain over faraway hills that hasn’t spoiled your summer holidays yet, the full force of the looming financial meltdown and subsequent recessions has yet to arrive. In just over a year’s time, house prices, now at dizzying and unsustainable heights, will plummet, and shops will be boarded up. Panicking governments will ineffectually print money, lower interest rates, and cut welfare. The banking system will collapse, exposing the rampant greed and cronyism of engorged capitalists and politicians. Smoke will be dispersed and mirrors cracked in the glare of outraged public scrutiny, yet nothing will be done by your self-serving elected representatives. Social unrest will become the norm, and the Far Right will flourish.
But all this is yet to come: right now you are pausing on one of the benches in front of City Hall to eat lunch in the sunshine. You watch the kids milling around in their dark baggy clothes, self-consciously shouting, joking, and mutedly chatting in small groups. When they talk, their eyes often scan the pavement as much as their friends’ faces; they seem uncomfortable, ill at ease. Their lives are complex, problematic, challenging.
After lunch it’s time to go shopping. Walking down the wide pavement of Donegall Place in the lunchtime throng, you stick as close to the plate-glass windows as possible, trying to take an easy route through the jostling hordes in front of you. Outside Queen’s Arcade your attention is snatched away from the mundane. Catwalking towards you are two girls, eighteen or nineteen years old. They are slim-waisted, curvy, with long, straightened hair. One is blonde, the other a redhead. Their makeup is perfect: simple, effective, subtle. They turn heads, male and female alike. The outfits are the same: shorts, sandals with heels, and identical white t-shirts emblazoned in bold black type with the words Pornstar in Training. When you see this proclamation, a host of thoughts clamour for your attention. After sifting through them, you finally understand that the point of this joint effort is to grab attention, to provoke, to demand devotion. These sassy girls will have a comeback for every smutty comment, slagging, and chat-up ever attempted. They own the street, the dancefloor, the VIP room. Certain things are ordained for such sirens: blue skies, endless credit, Dolce & Gabbana, marriage to some buck. Life is sweet.
But you know it’s all wrong: the foaming mass of lies, exploitation, and manipulation that assaults you from every billboard, TV advert, and news bulletin has legs. The girls are living proof of that.
Audio, read by Maria McManus: