Occupied was inspired by the anti-austerity protests of 2011 and the campsite in Writer’s Square under St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. We were in the middle of the global recession and banker’s bail-outs; we’d been through the MPs expenses scandal, the phone hacking scandal and the Arab Spring with another Austerity crisis on the way. Like 950 other cities we’d responded by pitching tents in the city centre to answer the needs of the homeless, the impoverished and the angry; the latter category pretty much covering everyone. The exact moment of inspiration probably came in the biting cold at 3 a.m. in December, me sat watching twenty tents crammed onto a small patch of grass. Hands were a-tremor around a scalding cup with rain pelts falling from the marquee roof and slabbering onto my cheeks A metal bin smoked beside a few of us and threw up orange flames. The fire was at the centre of the main marquee, a literal melting pot which drew in political activists. It crackled and stung our eyes. Like the tribes of old, the members of Occupy Belfast shared stories and formed enduring bonds around that sparking fire.
‘This is fertile ground for a sitcom,’ said someone. ‘The stupid stuff that happens here: like the protest where one person turned up, the weirdos that come by, all the silly crap we talk about. You could use it as the basis for a show.’
We discussed catchphrases. Visitors to the camp inevitably said the same things:
‘Have you enough food?’
‘Are you keeping warm? Dear love yis.’
‘What are you protesting about anyway?’
In 2014 I answered a BBC Writer’s Room call-out for TV comedy with a thirty-minute pilot script. ‘Charity and Security’ told the tale of a blogger embedded at the camp overnight with a rules-fixated old curmudgeon. A revised script went to Channel 4’s 2016 open submissions and also failed at pitch. Shortly afterwards I adapted it as a prop when teaching writing for radio in a community group. By then I’d seen incredible potential in the Occupied concept. Months after the BBC pitch I wrote more, this time as part of 24-Hour Comics Day. This is a day, traditionally in October, when without preparation cartoonists around the world make 24 pages of comics in 24 consecutive hours. ‘Mixed Up Media’ went on to become the first draft for chapters six and seven. To keep tapping the inspiration I later embarked on a series of poems about characters who could inhabit a larger narrative.
In the days at the Writer’s Square camp, I was unable to sleep because of the noise of the city centre location. To prove to myself I could, I spent a week writing under a tent in Dungiven. Not a young man and not a fit man I did so cold to the bones in twisting walls of thin canvas. When I returned it became clear that to reliably share my story for Occupy’s tenth anniversary I would have to write a novel. I began work on a ‘bible’ filled with characters’ biographies, quirks, dialogues and what-if imagineering. It included notes from the news of 2011, the movement specifically and communications around the Belfast camp. The results of these were so resonant they seemed fit to form a plot: the floods that almost ended the camp in week one, revulsion at brutal police action in America, support for the Cork Vita Cortex sit-in and an anti-fracker interrupting a Stormont parliament debate. For 2018’s 24-hour comics day I came up with ‘The Spook’, a tale of infiltration and paranoia; ostensibly about the predicament of living with someone you have no reason to trust. The following month I took part in NaNoWrimo – National Novel Writing Month – and the challenge to write 50k over November. So I had a first draft by year’s end and then was setting up interviews with ex-Occupiers, sessions which produced amusing and unbelievable tales, many of which I’ve stolen for you.
Occupied is a fictional account of that community: activists, campers, visitors, trolls and celebrities. It’s a tale set in the rain, mud and snow with an ensemble crew, seemingly pre-determined towards sleeplessness, suspicion and bickering. However their journey is the heart of matter: the close friendships they form, the social support they lend and the people they feed and home. In this respect it’s not too difficult from what really happened. Over the years I continued re-drafting and pitching, despite agent/publisher rejections and ghosting. When Covid hit I embraced the constraints of self-isolation and buried my head in the edits. Literary agency Greene and Heaton were also pro-active. Their participation in the FeedNHS initiative gave writers an opportunity for a three-chapter review and so there was a long phone call with agent Kate Rizzo discussing the book’s potential and somewhat inevitable changes. Kate’s criticism – the sprawling cast, clarity and tone – overlapped with critiques of my peers in our new online review group. Their feedback let me grow those early chapters to maturity. Among my reviewers was Claire M. Burn, a quiet professional with time for valuable things and I managed to sell Claire on editing the book. This was one of the best choices I could have made. She caught little typos, disruptive ambiguities and posed fixes to bigger structural bugs. Given that I was cornered into self-publishing Occupied, Claire’s help lessened my burden. Her enthusiasm flowed into a related project: our collaborative soundtrack for the novel.
I wasn’t commissioned to write Occupied. It didn’t fit to a mould or preconceived publisher agenda.. Occupied is the novel that I saw a need for. The gatekeepers were hundreds of archived news sources, the memories of those who experienced Occupy first-hand and my remarkable team of editors. It’s a novel with a beauty and a genuine centre to it and it stands on an immovable foundation. If it’s read by thirty or thirty thousand, I’ll live the rest of my life knowing I made that happen.
(c) Andy Luke
Eoghan: Pro-active, diplomatic, tries too hard.
Leon: Idealistic rebel. Smashes the patriarchy.
Cat: Organised, over-worked & burned out.
Padraig: Demands laughs & cheesy snacks.
Bronagh: Nurturer, or tormentor?
Levin: Likes to ask questions. Suspect goatee.
Bob: Tough as nails OAP. Doesn’t care for you.
It’s 2011 and the people of Belfast, Northern Ireland stand up to Austerity as part of a global protest movement, with camping. As they pitch their tents in the sleepy Cathedral Quarter, visitors congregate. Celebrities. Trolls. Activists with lofty ambitions. Though small in profile they give food, homes, training and social support. They become family amid the mud, snow, insomnia and paranoia, against the dying of the light.
‘Many thanks for the script from “Occupied”. Great concept and very well written, so rhymeful of the times, the idealism, the madness, the sincerity as well as the relevance and importance of the movement then and for the future… a very worthy project and the humour is a serious part of it.’ – Tommy Sands
Order your copy online here.