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...


  1. I enjoyed reading this as Northern Ireland is on our list. My wife's father's side are from Lisburn and I'm a big fan of Bernard MacLaverty's short stories. I like your observation on seafood choices. It's true that the seaside means something different for each generation but we pass on that affection, albeit altered a little. My boys love the open spaces and peace of Anglesey/N Wales as my granddad did, but I doubt he enjoyed Cadwalader's ice creams...
    Thanks for your kind comments.

  2. Hope you make it to Ireland soon, Richard. I am sure you would get a big welcome from your family there (if you are still in touch). The East coast of Northern Ireland is not unlike the Welsh coast, I find.
    You capture the essence of the British seaside so well in your stories so I will look forward to any writings on NI.
    County Down is lovely - but head for the Antrim coast for some real coastal drama.