Saturday, 18 February 2012

Returning to Belfast

Wanderlust Blog of the Week

I've just come back from Northern Ireland. Recently, I've started using the trains again - and I'm discovering a new, vibrant Belfast.

Somehow, I have lost a quarter of a century between trains.
Back in the 1980s, the train from Lurgan to Belfast shuddered and creaked its way to the city. The seats were blighted with cigarette holes and knife slits, the floors covered in litter, the walls plastered with graffiti. Disaffected youths smoked in the no smoking compartments and no one dared challenge them. This was Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles: troubled, angry, defiant.
You ascertained where you were on your journey by peering through grimy windows. To disembark, you had to pull down the window, reach outside and twist the metal handle, pushing the heavy door outwards with all your might.
Here I am twenty-five years later, back on the train to Belfast. The new stock is state-of-the-art: shiny, clean, comfortable, smooth, fast.  Rolling neon lights flash up the destinations along the line.  A soothing English voice tells us our next stop. Automatic doors slide open effortlessly. The female voice recites the remaining destinations. Surely I must be in the home counties, not in my homeland?
But the names are the same:   Moira, Lisburn, Hilden, Lambeg, Derriaghy, Dunmurry, Finaghy, Balmoral, Adelaide and Great Victoria Street. They roll off the tongue like poetry.
I breathe out slowly, and soak in the past and the present. Across the way, a couple are speaking in the tongue of my childhood. A language half forgotten.  They punctuate every sentence with a verbal full stop.
“I’ve just got back from Australia - so I have.”
“I didn’t know that – I didn’t.”
“Loved it out there – aye.”
“You’re still in Finaghy – are you?”
“I am – aye.”
I smile to myself. When did my birthplace become a foreign country?
In Belfast, I met a friend at the City Hall. We dodge the ‘tour-of-the-troubles’ operators, touting for business.
Back in the eighties, you entered the main shopping area through a gated terrapin to be given a thorough body search – repeated in every store you entered. Shopping in the city wasn’t for the faint hearted. People in Derry refused to go to Belfast because they felt it was too dangerous. Belfast citizens wouldn’t go to Derry for the very same reason.
There is such an air of freedom and optimism now, I feel dizzy. We continue on to Victoria Square and the new centre with its glass dome offering 360 degree views: of the city, the river Lagan, the Lough, the sea beyond, and the Black Mountain on the skyline.

We walk on to the waterside. I had no idea it was so close to the city centre. During the troubles it was a forgotten wasteland.
By the Lagan, we gaze up at the Ring of Thanksgiving. The locals prefer to call it ‘The thing with the ring,’ ‘Nuala with the Hula’ or ‘The doll on the ball’. They have a way with words here. Peace and conciliation is the statue’s message.
I carry my fragile bundle of hope onto the train. Then it’s ten stops and home.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Boxing Day, Radio Derby and Coney Island

Boxing Day is an important date in the family calendar. My siblings (living in England), their children and now their Grandchildren (who would believe it!) gather together for a Boxing Day extravaganza. Every year, it gets bigger and bigger as our family grows and grows! For a couple of years, we even had some 'stray' Chinese girls (from my neice's Uni). They must have been highly bemused by the scale of our family - having no siblings themselves whatsoever.

Anyway, the day involves lots (and lots) of food, games, music and performances.
This year, I decided to make a 'Desert Island Disc' for each family.  (I stole the idea from a friend). Jamie, my son, and I then set about writing a quiz based on each family's choices. It was all great fun.

Whilst I was investigating the rules for Desert Island Discs, I noticed that the Radio 4 website was asking the public to send in their 'Desert Island Song' along with a story. Each local radio was going to do a regional programme, giving 'Joe Bloggs' a chance to hear a song that was close to his or her heart and tell an accompanying story. I sent a story I had already written about Van Morrison's Coney Island song-poem, and promptly forgot all about it.

A short time later, I had a phone call from a producer at the local radio. Would I come in and share my story? Would I not! I took the train to Derby and nervously told my story into the mike.
Some weeks later, our family sat round the radio (It had a real wartime feel to the occasion) and listened to my story on the radio. Strange to hear my own voice over the airwaves.

Here's the lyrics to the Van Morrison song I chose, and the story I sent into Radio Derby.
Coney Island

Coming down from Downpatrick
Stopping off at St. John's Point
Out all day bird watching
And the craic was good
Stopped off at Strangford Lough
Early in the morning
Drove through Shrigley taking pictures
And on to Killyleagh
Stopped off for Sunday papers at the
Lecale District, just before Coney Island

On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jamjar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through

Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island

I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I'm thinking,
Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?
By Van Morrison (Click on the link below and listen to the music when reading the lyrics)

Try following Morrison’s route – it’s a geographical nonsense!
Artist’s licence?

Coney Island: In the footsteps of Van Morrison

“Dad, do you know where Coney Island is?" I asked.
Van Morrison’s Coney Island poem-song stirs something deep within my soul. Maybe it is the wall of dulcet orchestration. Maybe it is the poetry that perfectly captures those small moments of happiness. Maybe it’s hearing the lilting language of my Ulster childhood; words like ‘craic’ and ‘famished’.
“Coney Island?” my Dad replied. “Sure, Coney Island is on Lough Neagh.”
But Lough Neagh is nowhere near the places Morrison speaks of in his poem - which are all on, or near, the coast of County Down. Like Van Morrison, I have sweet memories of trips to the area around St John’s Point, Ardglass and Strangford Lough - but I’d never heard of Coney Island. And I had no idea where it was.
Back in Northern Ireland, I wanted to follow in the steps of Van Morrison...only his Coney Island route made no geographical sense. So my husband, Tom, and I devised a more logical route of our own that didn’t involve driving round in circles! There was only one problem – we were unable to find the exact location of Coney Island. Would we find it?
We left out the Lecale District - hardly a picturesque part of Belfast. Squigley, too. (Why on earth was Morrison taking pictures there?) Instead we headed straight for Downpatrick via Killyleagh, and over to Strangford Lough. At Strangford we weaved through tiny, ‘neat-as-a-pin’ cottages, until we reached the jetty. There we watched the little ferry plough across the Lough and peered into the water to find the walls laced with delicate pearl-pale jellyfish.
 Losing ourselves in narrow country lanes, we drove ‘on and on over the hill’. Then we turned a corner to see the Mourne Mountains rising like humpback whales out of the Irish Sea.
Ardglass seemed a little forgotten. The fishing trawlers were all but gone. My parents often stopped there when I was little, and bought fresh whiting straight from the sea. (Their simple tastes in food didn’t run to ‘jars of mussels and potted herring’).
Just outside Ardglass, we saw the sign for Coney Island. So it did exist!  We trundled down a pot-holed road to find Coney Island was actually the name of a hamlet that consisted of a row of peeling, down-at-heel fishing cottages.
Tom and I saw a small piece of land that extended into the sea. It wasn’t an island - more a tombolo - but maybe this was Coney Island for Van Morrison, not the hamlet. It wasn’t beautiful - if nature could look messy, this was messy. The ground was rough and uneven, and covered in a tangle of low-lying shrubs and trees.
Suddenly, Tom stopped and pulled me close. He took out his MP3, put one earplug in his ear, and one earplug in mine. The sound of Morrison’s ‘Coney Island’ filled our ears:  ‘I look at the side of your face as the sunshine comes streaming through...and all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time.’
It was one of those small moment of perfect happiness...