Nothing to report for the next couple of days but on the 7th I knew I had to get to Belfast. As I have explained before it is ludicrously the only way I can buy a sailrail ticket back to London by travelling to the rail Travel Centre there. Still, I hadn’t managed to get to the city of my birth since I had been home so it was no great hardship.
A pleasant enough journey on the train deposited me at the station and straight to the Travel Centre where a friendly guy dealt with me quickly and efficiently (look, I have my travel writing head back on now) so the rest of the day was mine. What to do? Well, obviously a drink or two would be called for but I fancied a bit of a wander round, just for the old times. Damn, I grew up here when it was a lot different.
First stop was always going to be the Crown Bar, a wonderful place which is actually owned by the National Trust and is arguably the most famous bar in the city. Nowadays tourists wander in the door, take a few photos and walk out without even buying a soft drink which I think is a bit rude but that is the modern world, I suppose.
I managed to bag a little snug by the door from which I could watch things going on whilst being relatively unobserved myself. Suits me and that is and was the purpose of the snug. If you don’t know what a snug is (they are all but extinct now) then look back to an earlier entry here where I explain it. A couple of pints and I was ready for a walk.
Taking a couple of “back doubles” (i.e. backstreets and alleyways) I could still remember, I wandered down the side of Belfast City Hall which is a wonderful place to visit should you be in Belfast. They also have a really helpful Tourist Information place there. I only had a vague idea of where I was going, actually I had no idea, and so I headed for Royal Avenue which for the benefit of my UK readers is like the Oxford Street of London or, I suppose 5th Avenue in New York or wherever. It is basically the main shopping thoroughfare and I trundled along until a sudden thought hit me. I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
I thought I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
There are obviously some brilliant artists in the country and most of them tend to do their work on walls rather than canvas or paper. The murals in Belfast and, indeed, the rest of Northern Ireland, are famous and there are organised tours which do nothing but visit them. Many of them are sectarian and glorify terrorists and history that would probably best be left alone although the genre seems to have extended now to non-controversial subject matter. I just thought this was a beautiful piece of work, not that I am any sort of art critic.
Memo to self. Do a piece on Belfast murals when you ever get round to it.
Having had my artistic fix for the day (I was never going to go to a gallery) I made Kelly’s. This is quite an odd place in some respects, mostly associated with my youth. Belfast really was tribal when I was a teenager and walking down the wrong street would literally get you a kicking or worse. Being where it is, Kelly’s would not have been the type of place I would have gone to because it was on the “wrong” side. What actually changed a lot of that, if only for a while, was the music. In about 1976 or 1977 the punk explosion happened and all bets were off.
I liked the punk scene and the music although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I never really got into the whole thing very much apart from one awful attempt to dye my hair purple and wearing old jackets I had bought in charity shops but it really was the big thing. Sectarianism was still killing hundreds of people a year in a country of (then) about 1.5 million people but that all went by the board with the punk scene. We had some bloody good bands too, Stiff Little Fingers probably being the most famous, but others like Protex, Ruefrex etc. were also doing good stuff. I always liked the Outcasts because I went to school with Greg the bass player. If I can find the image of when we met at a school reunion 30 years later I’ll post it here. He hasn’t changed (and still plays) but I just look bloody old!
The thing about Kelly’s was that it didn’t matter about your background or religion or whatever. If you were into the music, that was enough. Sure, it took the rest of the country long enough to catch up. In fairness, rock gigs were the same. When I used to go and see the late Rory Gallagher (in my not so humble opinion still the best white blues guitarist ever) and people like Horslips (brilliant Celtic folk-rock band) nobody gave a damn who you were or where you came from but they tended to play in big venues like the Ulster Hall (Rory) and the Whitla Hall (Horslips), both of which were in fairly “neutral” areas. Kelly’s was a bit different.
In I went and not a damn thing had changed in about 40 years, it was exactly as I remembered except for the constant stream of tourists coming in for a pint of Guinness, a few photos and a bowl of the Irish Stew, speciality of the house and which looked and smelt gorgeous although I didn’t try it, it was far too early in the day for eating. Yet another one for the memory bank and, dragging myself away from the brilliant barmaid who was cranking my Belfast accent up by about 10% per hour (I came back to England sounding so broad) I took off again.
Partly by accident and, I suppose, subliminally by design I found myself at Smithfield market. Well, the image tells you what it looks like. In my day it was a collection of wooden shacks selling everything imaginable and some things you possible would not wish to imagine. I loved the place. I bought my first guitar in there.
I had learned a few chords on an old Eko Ranger 6 that my Dad had brought home (and never even lifted to my knowledge although he plays keyboards well) but I wanted my own and I paid £15 for a Harmony six string which is not a great make but I wish I had it now. I read a quote from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers saying it was his first guitar and it was unplayable but mine played reasonably well and I loved it.
As for the Eko, it still resides in my Dad’s house, bruised, battered but never broken and it features in an earlier entry in this set of blogs about this trip. Look for the entry where I constructed a capo from a bookie’s pen and a few hairbands! It has to be well over 50 years old now and the action is still pretty good. I suppose it is a bit like I am really – too old, rough round the edges and pretty ugly but still holding up a tune. I reckon it will outlive me!
Smithfield now is just sterile and wasn’t to my liking at all. Sure, I am glad they rebuilt it but it just isn’t the same. I had a look in a few shops but I might as well have been in Camden Market in London i.e. overpriced tat aimed at tourists. I do realise that I am starting to sound really old now but, as I have said, I can only write one way.
Leaving the 21st century predictablility of the new Smithfield I kept on walking as I usually do in search of something I could at least refer back to and which had not been swept away (i.e. blown up) by the the ravages of organised criminals posing as “freedom fighters” and subsequently replaced at huge expense to the taxpayer (i.e. me) on the back of the so-called “peace dividend”.
I obviously love the fact that you don’t have to walk about Belfast now wondering if you might have the front of a building blown out over your head and killing or maiming you, although that possibility still regrettably exists, but I cannot help but feel somewhere in me that the soul of the place has somehow got lost in translation. Certainly I have been away for a long time but I feel like a stranger in Belfast now even with my thick accent making me sound enough like a local to get by.
I walked along a few streets that I recognised by their location if not the premises there and came on the Mermaid Inn which is not a place I would have frequented when I was living there. This was not for any reason of personal safety as it is in a fairly neutral central zone, it just was not a place I used to hang out. It was OK although nothing special and a bit soulless so one pint in there was enough and back for another little trip down memory lane (there is an intended pun here for those that may know Belfast as it is an area known as the Lanes) with another aimless ramble.
I suppose it is entirely logical after 30 years but feeling like an outsider in a place I once lived was a very odd sensation. No, there was no animosity, far from it as Belfast people are renowned for their hospitality and I was greeted warmly wherever I went. I could not, however, help feeling like one of the numerous North American / European / Asian tourists who do so much now for the economy of a small country that would not have seen a foreign visitor thirty years ago as it was a war zone and that is not hyperbole, it is s simple statement of fact. I genuinely do not know how I feel these days about where I was born, strange as that may sound. Again, this seems a bit heavy but (all together now) I can only write one way.
Leaving the Mermaid I took myself down to Cornmarket, quite a hub in the commercial area, and had a brief look at some meaningless piece of modern sculpture that someone clever enough to work the system had undoubtedly been paid a fortune to put there. You can get the same in any city but I could not help but look instead at a modern shopfront which, in my day, was the Abercorn bar and restaurant, basically a cafe and restaurant on the ground floor and a bar upstairs.
The Abercorn is etched on the minds of anyone who lived in Belfast at that time. On Saturday, 4 March 1972, it became the scene of one of the defining moments of so many others in the horror of what was wrought on my country by criminal terrorists posing as something noble over decades. The cafe was full of shoppers, mostly women and children when two teenage female IRA murderers left a 5lb. bomb in a handbag and walked out with it exploding two minutes later. It left two young women dead and about 130 injured, many with horrific injuries including losing limbs and permanent blindness. To call it carnage would be to much understate the case. For those not completely au fait with the politics of Northern Ireland, why was this done? Because the IRA believed that British soldiers used the upstairs bar. Why then place the bomb in the cafe? That was the thinking of what was effectively an organised crime syndicate masquerading under the pretence of being “liberators”. Yes, I do feel strongly about his subject, very strongly and with good reason.
To use an ugly phrase with much currency in Northern Ireland at that time, they scored a spectacular “own goal”. The two young ladies they murdered were both Catholics i.e. on “their” side. The lines are very blurred on this as not all Catholics are Nationalists and neither are all Protestants Unionists, as many of the first Irish Republicans were Protestant (e.g Wolfe Tone). I really mean this, if you don’t know much about politics in Northern Ireland, then don’t try if you do not have many years left as it really is too convoluted and you will be dead before you ever even close to getting to grips with the intricacies.
Again, I understand that this is pretty heavy stuff and understandably incomprehensible to many who may some day read this. Remarkably for me, I make no apology for this writing as I seem to spend half my time here doing doing just that.
Perhaps I am finally getting my admittedly limited intellect around the concept of editorial freedom and I am actually finding it quite liberating after years of having to avoid even the most obliquely political comment on various sites for fear of bringing down the wrath of the usually self-appointed “internet police”. As always, I welcome any and all constructive debate here and I promise to answer everyone who may wish to contact me. In truth, it will not take much time as my readership is so meagre but I now have the “freedom” of the internet (on payment of a fee obviously). How I wish I had got into this gig at the start when it was a case of becoming a millionaire without getting out of your chair, what a life. Still, no point in crying over spilt milk and I probably couldn’t have managed it anyway, technophobe as I am.
Enough of all this and back to my nostalgic and ever so slightly disorientating meander round the capital of the country which seems to be causing all sorts of merry Hell in the Brexit fiasco currently being played out (October 2018) against a background of fine meals eaten by politicians and unelected bureaucrats in countries we either saved or fought against to save Europe from the yoke of Fascism.
If the reader is not aware (and why would they be outside Europe?) the major problem to implementing the democratic will of the British people (to paraphrase Robert Plant from a Led Zep live gig, “Does anyone remember democracy”?) that they should leave the much disliked Federal States of E is the border between Northern Ireland, the subject of this blog entry, and the Republic of Ireland. The people of the Republic voted in a referendum some years ago against the will of Brussels (Treaty of Lisbon I believe although I may be wrong) so the public were sent back to the ballot box until the desired Brussels result was obtained. They have done the same in other countries but that is the EU concept of democracy.
As far as I can see, E (as they will soon undoubtedly be called) stubbornly refuse to accept a “hard” border between a country that wants to bow the knee and one whose people voted not to. I was born in Northern Ireland in the 1950’s, lived there until the late 1980s and, for a long period of that time, there was a “hard” border. Yes, we were separate countries, yes there were border posts (before Republican terrorists started murdering Customs officers (my friend’s uncle was one such) as supporters of the British “apparatus”) but it never took more than a minute or two for my Father to drive my Mother, younger brother and I into the Irish Republic past the respective border posts. It may even have still been called Eire then, I cannot remember and life is too short to look it up. Anyway, it was never a problem. A “hard” border is only a problem to the multi-nationals who are all committed Remoaners (that is not a typo). Border posts are in place all over the world and yet it still keeps turning. Will the re-introduction of such cause the sun not to rise the next day? I think not.
Next up was a quick trip to one of the many “pound shops” that are such a feature of any British city centre these days and I love them. My primary purpose for visiting this day was that I was down to my last pair of reading glasses yet again. I really do not know what I do with them. I leave them lying at my backside, sit on the occasional pair and drop some others so often that the lenses become irrevocably scratched. I really am hard on them but fortunately I do not need prescription lenses so I stock up on as many pairs as I can lay hands on cheaply at any given opportunity. I cannot remember the name of this particular shop but, as the generic description of it I have given suggests, everything in there is £1 which is not a lot of money for any non-British people who may stumble upon this rambling.
I bought three pairs of glasses, two hardback books which were each marked at about £17:99 and were titles by two of my favourite authors that I had not yet read. I bought three multipacks of chocolate bars for my Dad who loves anything sweet and the whole lot came to £8. At time of writing this in October 2018 that is $10:45US. To quote the Who, “I call that a bargain”.
Heading back vaguely in the direction of the train station I walked past the premises of Fred J. Malcolm Jewellers which has not changed one iota in at least 40 years. It was here that I bought an engagement ring the one and only time I ever started to descend the slippery slope to matrimony. My late Mother knew the man running the place as she used to dabble a bit in collecting antique silver and so I got a good price although it was still an arm and a leg for a lovely piece, £800 as I recall in 1986 or ’87. That was a lot of money then but I was earning what was probably more than was good for an irresponsible young man like me in those days.
The engagement didn’t work out and I am quite prepared to admit now, as I did then, that the fault was entirely mine and that the young lady really did deserve a lot better than me. I did hear years later that she was happily married with kids which was what she always wanted. I have not heard of her for decades and I suppose she may well be a grandmother by now. I wish her all the very best and I do hope she is happy as she was a truly wonderful lady and how she put up with me as long as she did is still something of a mystery to me.
It is strange that even after all years a simple walk round Belfast city centre still provokes such strong emotions in me and there was more to come.
Time for a bite to eat and I knew where I was going as it was a Tuesday and therefore grill night in Wetherspoons pubs all over the UK. Again, for the benefit of non-UK readers Wetherspoons is a huge chain of pubs which all do food and they even have a few hotels now. I believe there are about 880 outlets at the last count and opinion is much divided about them. They work very much on economies of scale and rarely buy up pubs but rather convert old banks, casinos, theatres, Post Office sorting depots, churches and just about anything else huge that you care to mention and convert them, always with a local theme. I use the examples given as I have drunk in at least one of each type with my local in East London being the old Half Moon theatre which I can actually remember in it’s former incarnation.
There may be more than one ‘Spoons (as they are called colloquially) in Belfast now but the place I go is the Bridge House which is actually two buildings knocked through. One was a fancy goods box maker and the other an undertaker. What is of interest is that the architect was Sir Charles Lanyon whose other works include the glorious and technically challenging Antrim Coast Road, the Palm House in the nearby Botanical Gardens and the main building of Queen’s University which is also a short walk away. All of these will feature in future entries here if I live long enough.
I mentioned that opinion is much divided in the UK and Ireland where they have now expanded about the Wetherspoon brand so please allow me to briefly explain why. Many people like them as they offer very competitively priced food and drink and others decry them, claiming they are putting traditional pubs out of business as they cannot compete. I must say that I am firmly in the former camp.
Pubs were, and still are, closing at an alarming rate for a huge number of reasons which I am not going to go into here and it was nothing to do with Wetherspoons. If anyone ever even reads this and is slightly interested, send me a message here on the site and I’ll talk you through it. In the interests of fair reporting, which I have always tried to do on any site I have written for, and have even more reason to do so on my own, I must say that the service in a Wetherspoons establishment can be sketchy sometimes and nothing short of unacceptable at others. Part of the business model is to have as few staff as possible, although they are very good to them, winning award after award for being a great employer.
I have eaten and drunk in their outlets all over the UK many times and the only complaint I can make about the food is that I was once served an eggs Benedict with a cold Hollandaise, that’s it. It’s not haute cuisine, it is not meant to be, it is just reasonably priced grub (freezer to plate for sure) done well.
A year or two back I took my Canadian friend Lynne to this self same place when we visited Belfast on a tour of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Now, they know a thing or two about eating out in large chain bars there and we had spent manys a happy evening in various Boston Pizzas which I absolutely adore but I have a slight problem with their portion control as one of their pasta dishes for one feeds me for three meals! Anyway, I took Lynne here and I remember it well. She liked the bar, ordered a Philly cheesesteak (I think that is what it was called) and pronounced it very good. I thought that was pretty good coming from a “North American” and, please trust me, I am not on the JDW payroll to write this.
I don’t know if it was just a bit of nostalgia or whatever but I managed to get the same table for two that we had sat at the night we visited. I started on one of the new books I had just bought and had a couple of pints before ordering my dinner which was exactly what I had had when I was there with Lynne but there was no element of nostalgia in this – the spare ribs in Wetherspoons are bloody brilliant and I always order them on grill night. I am so glad to see they have actually migrated to the daily menu so I can get them any time I feel like it. Yes, they were as good as they look albeit that it was a slightly bittersweet experience dining alone.
Another thing I like about Wetherspoons is that their head man, a guy called Tim Martin, who is obviously no mug to have built up such an empire (for such it is) speaks absolutely my language about the whole Brexit nonsense that is going on now. Yes, we are back to that again. Not only does he “talk the talk” about it, intelligently deconstructing the fallacious arguments of the political class trying to protect their own gravy train, but he “walks the walk” by sourcing as much as possible from the UK, offering special deals specifically marketed as “Free Trade” or something similar where they are offering products from non EU countries cheaper than the brands currently protected under Federal States of E diktat. Here is a great example and proves far better than I ever could why it is such a good idea to get out of the EU, deal or no, as soon as possible. I have to say I am really relishing this freedom to actually say what I want.
To go back to a former “life” when I wrote for a great travel website I answered many questions for first time visitors to UK who had been frightened off a bit by reading about obscene prices for eating out and I always used to recommend Wetherspoons. That has not changed. Certainly you can eat cheaper by going for a “meal deal” from any number of supermarkets (which are great for a picnic in the park or whatever) but for a sit down meal Wetherspoons is as good as any and, again, I stress that I am not being paid to write this. The breakfasts are great and the curries on a Thursday night are excellent. I speak as one who has travelled a bit in South and Southeast Asia and whose dear friend makes the best curry in the world (I will accept no argument on this point, you really want to taste it).
Where were we on this lunatic series of digressions which have, one way and another, taken me four days to write? Ah yes, I had a bellyful of delicious spare ribs and headed back to the train station for a lateish train to Portadown and thence a cab home, the last bus having gone at 1750! Honestly, public transport in Northern Ireland is criminally bad.
Well, I didn’t expect my little jaunt to Belfast to buy a train ticket to have taken so long and with so many verbal excursions to describe but there you have it.
I shall finish off this little, or not so little, trip soon and get back to UK to head straight into another bit of an adventure so stay tuned and spread the word.