Tags: memories


Pub crawl...hard work, but someone's got to do it!

On Monday afternoon I headed to Belfast for a little last-draft research. This is the point in finishing off the book where I have to make sure all the small details are correct. For instance, while wandering around the city center, I realized my memory had failed me in thinking one could see the Woolworth’s shop from the main British Home Stores entrance in Corn Market. Not going to give any spoilers, but when you read the book you’ll see why this would be important to get right. And this is only one example!

I checked into the Days Inn hotel in the center of Belfast and met up with ye olde friende Terry, one of the gang I hung out with in Belfast eons ago. I’ve mentioned him before in my blogs…he immigrated to Australia and most of us only got back in touch once we’d been assimilated into Facebook a few years ago. One of these days we’ll collaborate on a screenplay, about the fate and follies of Norn Irish immigrants over the world.

Research began in the lobby bar of the Europa Hotel, famed as the most bombed hotel in the world. My memory turned out not only to be faulty about how it looked back in 1979 (when the book is set) but downright wrong! I thought I remembered marble floors, but according to the mini museum on the spiral staircase wall off the lobby, it was all wood paneling and dark carpet.

After a berry-flavored cider we crossed the road to The Crown Liquor Saloon. This tavern was in the original draft of the screenplay but I’m not sure if it’s going to be in the book or not. A Victorian gin palace, built in 1885, it’s a really attractive building with ornately elaborate Italian tiling, stained glass and woodwork. A pear-flavored cider, this time…sitting up at the bar and people-watching.

Two glasses of cider prompts a visit to the bathroom, where unfortunately several sterling pound coins fell from my jeans pocket and rolled under the partition to the stall beside me.

“Don’t worry, I won’t keep them,” came an American-accented voice.

I laughed. “Finders keepers.”

Using a pointed index finger, my neighbor slid the coins one by one back toward me and headed out to the sinks. When I emerged I found her bemused by the disposable toothbrush vending machine. Whatever they looked like, they came in round blue plastic bubbles, a pound each.

Next stop was Lavery’s Bar, apparently another gin palace. This doesn’t feature in the book, but I based a couple of places on it. When I spent a year studying my A-levels at the Shaftesbury House College nearby, almost every afternoon a bunch of us came in here after school. We were all about 17, (under age), and where we got the money from to drink every day I do not know! I have a very clear memory of drinking Southern Comfort and white lemonade in there. The very thought of it now makes me want to hurl!

Then it was time to head down to the ‘Movie House’ on Dublin Road to see the film, ’71, which has just been released here. I had mixed feelings about seeing it. It’s hard to watch stuff like this that stirs up stuff probably best forgotten. But I thought it would be helpful to see a period piece set in Belfast, particularly considering the subject of my own book and screenplay. And it was, to a point.

I thought the movie started out well, but lost a lot once we got to the second act. Too many plot holes. Spoiler alert: in my humble opinion, I think it would have worked better if the main character had been more proactive about his survival throughout the story rather than blundering around and trusting others too easily… and when he’d passed out in the street due to his injuries, with astounding good luck he was found by the only two people out walking in the area…one who just happened to be an ex-army medic and his daughter, who dragged him up several stories into the heart of Provo land in the infamous Divis Flats.

But really, who am I to criticize? It was pretty well done, all in all, and I am well aware what a remarkable feat it is to get a movie made in the first place, so kudos to writer Gregory Burke. Perhaps people who didn’t grow up in this shit might find it simply an entertaining war movie thriller.

We ended up in Kelly’s Cellars, the oldest licensed premises in Belfast. There’s always a great atmosphere there, and it was a perfect place to wrap up a day’s work over a shot of smooth Bushmills whiskey.

All in the name of research, you understand…!

View from the hotel window


In front of Belfast city hall

Reliving history, posing in a new-style phonebox where an old cherry-red one stood

Some charming person left this cigarette butt in half a Mars Bar

Writing research & stirring up memories

My goodness, has it really been October 5th since my last blog entry? Well, I have a good excuse: I just finished writing a first draft of a new book!

In the past when I’ve talked about what I’m writing, I seem to jinx it and it never gets finished, so I’m very superstitious about talking about this one. I will when I feel I can, though. Some of you may remember me talking about it somewhat over the past couple of years. It’s something I’ve been desperately trying to write but just wasn’t able to. Every time I tried the words choked, and when I read them back I thought it resembled a 5th grade paper. ;-) Fortunately, I feel a lot better about it this time, and don’t think it reads like a school essay.

I’m working on a couple of projects. One of which meant I needed to go into Belfast to do some research. I’d intended to plan it in advance, like a military exercise but ended up just going on a whim. It’s been many years since I drove through the streets of Belfast. I threw a change of clothes into my mammoth-sized purse along with toothbrush and paste, and took my new little Ford Ka Studio, whom I’ve named ‘Sputnik’, on an adventure.

First stop: Queen’s University. It was with trepidation I approached the Stranmillis Road area, seeking a place to park. The place is flooded with memories. From walking through there on the way back from Ashleigh House School on the Malone Road, to catch the bus from the Lagan embankment home to Knockbreda. Passing the Lyric Theater, which embodied all the hopes and dreams I had back then of getting into Drama College in London and making acting my career. It all seemed so glamorous then. If only I’d known! June Clark and I used to walk together when we went that way. We’d been at Primary School together and were the only two in our class to go to our grammar school. Unfortunately we got separated into the two learning streams: she was in ‘A’ and I was in ‘Alpha’. I don’t think it meant anything academically, because there were as many intelligent ‘swots’ in my class as there were in hers. Nowadays I wish I could remember more about my school days. I’m sure there were good times. There surely must have been! If I had gone to a school in the States, where they label people, (making it nigh on impossible to break away from that imposed stereotype for the rest of their lives), I would have been one of the misfits, I think. The arty-farty, non-conformist who flaunted authority.

I wish from the very depths of my heart that I had understood the correlation between what I was being taught and how it applied to the real world. I had two great interests back then. Drama and astronomy. The latter secret, of course lest I be mocked! As one would have been. I wanted to be an astronaut, or do anything that was connected to space exploration. But in Northern Ireland, that was as impossible as finding Atlantis and growing gills. Once I came to the States, though, being involved in the Space Program was not an impossibility at all. If I’d had credentials in maths, physics, any of those… But I didn’t. This is one of those ‘two roads diverged’ dilemmas, isn’t it? Things do work out more or less the way they’re supposed to. I mean, if I hadn’t gone into Drama then I never would have progressed to writing. But you can’t help but wonder about that path not traveled, can you?

So, back to Stranmillis… I drove down toward Queen’s and turned into the last side street on the right, just before the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens. These streets are all so very narrow to start with, and then people park their cars on each side making a hair-raisingly tight gap to drive between. As I inched my way along, someone ahead of me pulled out of their parking spot. I felt like triumphant George in that episode of Seinfeld where he found the perfect parking space outside a hospital. He boasted and crowed about it ad infinitum, until someone killed themselves by jumping off the hospital roof. And yes, you guessed it – onto George’s car. :-)

Always timid about parallel parking, I tried to pull forward, but that wasn't going to work in such a tight space. No one was about to watch so I pulled the car out and backed in. To my amazement and delight I got it right first time. Sputnik was docked! With no one to scrutinize and criticize, I just got the job done with no fuss at all. Got to remember that next time I feel frazzled in a public parking lot in the States.

I felt like taking a photograph of my perfect parking, but resisted. (This does tell you what little confidence I have in my parking ability.) Leaving little Sputnik to his own devices, I walked back out onto Stranmillis Road and headed down toward Queen’s. Again, a myriad of memories. When June and I didn’t go the Embankment route home, we’d walk down this way and go through the Botanic Gardens to catch a different bus. In a Georgian building on the corner opposite the Botanic Gardens entrance, worked a young man with sandy colored, collar-length hair. Every single day that we passed, June and I would look to see if he was at his desk at the window, and if so, we’d wave. He always flashed a huge smile and waved back. We never met him, but we nicknamed him ‘Sandy’ for obvious reasons. I often wonder about random people I remember like that. What happened to him after June and I left Ashleigh and moved on to different paths in life? How long did he work in that building before moving on? Did he marry and have a family? Was he destined for a different future? I’ll never know. Another oddity about those days is that barely a week passed that some man didn't expose himself to us on our walk to the bus. I'll never understand it. We just ended up laughing, which was truly the best way to deal with it.

I walked past the gates to the gardens. I’d go there after I’d seen Queen’s. The day was mild with a little sunshine here and there, so I had all afternoon to wander the gardens. I mingled with the constant ebb and flow of students and entered the front gate to the famous landmark Lanyon Building. No one gave me a second glance. I would have thought they might, as I am probably double the age of anyone there. I wandered into the hall and popped into the visitor reception and store. I bought a Queen’s University sweatshirt and was asked if I wanted the faculty discount. Tempted to say yes because the garment cost the equivalent of $55, I declined with a grin.

By the time I’d wandered around upstairs and seen the display cases of silver, rain had begun to pelt down. I emerged into the quadrangle behind the Lanyon Building and lurked under the cloisters to take a few photos. The guide I’d downloaded to my Galaxy told me to head next to the Great Hall, so I made my way in that direction. A horde of students were bee lining there and I got caught up in their midst. I went with the flow all the way to the Hall, and again, none of them seemed to find it odd that I was there. Queen’s was hosting some kind of careers reception. The Great Hall was filled with booths where people could talk to you about what degree to choose, and a table down the middle of the room was laden with canapés, little sandwiches, and Mimosas. I could have. I really could have, but I didn’t. I ignored everybody and went up to the fireplace to look at the portraits and carvings, and then picked my way through the crowd and back outside. The rain was still fierce, so I abandoned following the guide and just wandered wherever I felt like going. I could look it up later and find out what it was I’d seen if I wanted.

Under an archway I found a heavy dungeonesque wooden door that was slightly ajar. I peeked inside and saw tantalizing stone steps spiraling upward. I slipped through the doorway and up the steps. I found myself in a lecture hall, at the top in the back from where the seats and desks tiered down to the floor. There sat a very large wooden desk, blackboards behind it, and a large flat screen TV affixed to the wall in the corner.

I sat on one of the seats at the back and listened to the silence. A million hopes, dreams, despairs, and disappointments had been felt in this room. The air felt heavy with them. When you think of all the range of intense thoughts and emotions you’ve experienced over the years, every single person who’s ever sat in this room has had their versions of the same kinds of thoughts and emotions. That’s why I think that walls can sometimes absorb the most intense. But that’s just me being fanciful, I guess.

It was time to move on. The rain looked like it was lightening up, so I zipped up my jacket and headed outside. I wanted to see the old bus stop where June and I spent so many hours waiting in all weathers. Buses would be late and then arrive sometimes three together, but by then they’d be full and we’d be lucky to get on. It was at this bus stop when I was about thirteen that I had a revelation. It was raining, (of course), and my school uniform was soaked through and I was freezing. All I wanted was to get home and dry. I remember the bus pulling up and I stepped over a huge leaf-filled puddle to climb on.

The driver said, “Sorry, love – we’re full.”

I looked at him in utter despair. “Really? You’re full? Is there no room for even one person?” This I asked with wide-eyed sincerity.

Before my eyes he underwent a transformation. His gruff expression faltered. “Er…” he mumbled as a flush spread across his face. “Well, I guess just one. See if you can squeeze in there.”

“Thank you!” I cried in gratitude and sidled down the aisle to join the clump of people standing there, hanging onto poles, bars and handles for dear life.

After much thinking and analyzing, I realized that I’d unwittingly turned on ‘helpless female charm’ that the driver couldn’t resist. This was a whole new power that I hadn’t realized I possessed. ;-)

I walked down University Square alongside Queen’s toward Botanic Avenue. Apparently at one time this row of smart Georgian houses was the Belfast equivalent of London’s Harley Street. I reached Botanic Avenue and looked across the road but my old bus stop had gone. I crossed over and stood in the spot, though, gazing down the road at the oncoming traffic and remembering back through the years.

The heavens literally opened at that point. So much for having all afternoon to wander the Botanic Gardens. I pulled up the hood on my jacket and turned round, squelching through huge puddles toward the lower gates to the gardens.

They hadn’t changed at all. I walked through the gates and past the little gatehouse. The paths, grass and flowerbeds are all exactly where they always have been. The benches sit where they always have been. The bushes and trees may have grown taller, but they are tamed and are in the same place they always have been. I wanted to sit and think about this… how something could remain the same for so long but the bottoms of my jeans were now soaked up to my knees and my hair was plastered flat to my head. God knows what my mascara was doing; I dreaded to think.

To the right stood the Victorian botanic glasshouse. Where it has always been. But it looked so much smaller than I remember. I went up the two flattish steps to the front door and had to stoop to turn the handle to open it. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. The scent of leafy, green foliage was the same as I remembered. But now, I’d been to the places where some of these exotic plants grow naturally. I recognized a spiky flower I’d seen in Southern California, and a bright pink flowered bush that lined many roads on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There was a luscious leafy tree I’d seen in Australia. The palms I’d seen in Hawaii and Miami, and the banana tree I’d seen in Zambia in Africa. I’d eaten seven curries off of a banana leaf at a Hindu wedding; one of the best meals I ever remember.

I walked around the glasshouse on the narrow brass grated pathway and returned to the door in no time. Was it always this small? I thought it went on forever, like a brass version of the Yellow Brick Road.

I took a few more photos and then braved the rain again, walking through the gardens toward the Ulster Museum. It had changed pretty much beyond all recognition. Except for the rubber, ridged floors. I remember the feel of those under my feet, and the particular rubber scent that came from them. Amazingly, that hadn’t changed.

I was grateful to be able to dump my heavy bag, computer, and sopping wet coat in their cloakroom. It wouldn’t have been much fun dragging those around with me. I got a little map and started my tour in a section they called, “Window on the World”, which gave an overview of some of the museum highlights. From there I stumbled upon a display about Northern Ireland’s Troubles. That was fascinating to read about it like a tourist, as though I hadn’t grown up in it. It all read as though it happened far away elsewhere. My people wouldn’t do this to each other… we’re all far too civilized. Right? Yeah, right. Since I've lived in the States I had the fanciful notion that one could be both British and Irish at the same time. I now understand that that's impossible. No wonder the country's been in such trouble for so long.

One thing remained the same as I remember it from the old days. The Mummy. This poor Egyptian woman’s preserved body has been lying in state in a glass case for as long as I can remember. She brought back so many memories. When I was about six, Mum and I going there especially to see her. Me feeling a little scared but thrilled at the same time. Going in there after school sometimes, just because. Staring at her desiccated, twisted hand that rests atop her thigh. Intruding on what should be the ultimate privacy. Coming here with a boy, because there wasn’t anywhere else for us to go on a Saturday morning.

I moved on to the natural history exhibits, which have vastly improved. I recognized some of the stuffed animals, but they’d been put into new displays that were more informative and interesting. In each section they had a room set aside for interactive knowledge. I only put my head round the door in the animal section to see the stuffed Bengal tiger in a glass case on the wall. I remembered him from the old days, too. As I focused my camera to take a picture, the young girl on duty there came up to me.

“Did you know you can open the drawers?” she inquired.

I lowered my camera and looked at her, nonplussed. “You can?” What was she talking about?

“Yes, look.” She went over to a display further inside the room and turned to make sure I was following. Then with great aplomb she pulled the drawer open.

I glimpsed the incarnate black evil shape of a tropical spider and jerked my museum map up to block it out. “Oh, my God!” I found myself saying.

She quickly shut the drawer. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She looked genuinely disappointed. “I didn’t think.” The tag pinned onto her shirt told me her name was Nicola.

I felt like a spoilsport, so I said. “No, it’s okay. I really should look.” I leaned forward and slowly pulled the drawer out again. I grimaced but kept my eyes on the furry, eight-legged epitome of my arachnid psychosis. Over the years I’ve come to admire them, which is quite an advancement. They are super intelligent. They would be way up there on the food chain should humanity ever vacate the earth.

“There’s an even bigger one over there.” Nicola bounded over to another drawer.

This time she let me open it myself, and I found myself looking at huge furry monster bigger than my hand. I made some kind of guttural noise, indicating my opinion and Nicola laughed.

“They’re amazing things, spiders,” she said. “The females are inclined to eat the males, so if a male spider who wants to mate comes onto their web, they have to tap out a kind of Morse code saying, ‘I’m here for a date; don’t eat me!’”

I found that fascinating. I told her how spider silk is very coveted, but you can’t group spiders together like you can silkworms. If you do there won’t be a host of little spiders for long. There’ll only be one very large spider.

She agreed. “But the males end up getting eaten anyway afterwards. Just be glad you’re a female. You don’t want to be a male in the animal kingdom.”

I pondered this, wondering if she were referring only to the animal kingdom, when she grabbed me by the arm.

“Although sayin’ that… wait till you see this!”

I followed her over to a shelf of books, where she pulled one of them down and rummaged through the pages. “See the spotted hyena? The female grows a clitoral penis and has to give birth through it.”

“Ouch,” was all I could think of to say.

“It’s awful to see. Like an explosion.”

I then learned all about it and why it happened that way. Don’t take our word for it, though… here’s a page that explains it all: http://www.livescience.com/699-painful-realities-hyena-sex.html

You know, if I’d met someone working in a museum like Nicola when I was younger, she would have sparked my interest very much in a subject I otherwise couldn’t have given a rat’s arse about. I had a swift 'if only' daydream about becoming a biologist after that encounter. I’m glad people like her are there now and are talking to kids today about all this. She is a credit and an asset to the Ulster Museum, and I shall be letting them know all this in an upcoming review. Absolutely top notch experience! I was very impressed indeed.

Reluctantly, I left and moved onto other displays. I spent all afternoon there, and it was still bucketing with rain when I came out again. And I had been walking and standing for hours; I was pretty worn out. Glad that I had brought overnight stuff with me, I got onto the internet and found a great price on a hotel, and headed over there. It turned out to be a gem. The Beechlawn House Hotel in Dunmurry. A perfect place for a writer to hole up in. Mid-week it was quiet, although I could see from their bar, restaurants, and promise of live music that it would not be on a weekend. My room was very large and comfortable, with free Wi-Fi, tea kettle and plenty of electrical outlets. I burrowed in and wrote a considerable amount, using what I’d seen earlier to make it come to life.

In the morning I decided to concentrate on a different writing project. This involves me trying to get my Great-Uncle Earnán de Blaghd’s memoirs translated from Irish to English, so I drove over to the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich center on the Falls Road. This is a place in the recently emerged Gaeltacht Quarter in Belfast, where they promote use of the Irish language. And somewhere once I would have been afraid to go. Times have definitely changed.

Takabuti, first revealed 1835
Aftermath of a Belfast bomb
Inside the Botanic Gardens Glasshouse
Culturann McAdam O Fiaich, Falls Road
Lanyard Building from Quadrangle

Following Game of Thrones to Belfast and Beyond

I was very touched to find an email from jaylake in my inbox, the other day. Even in the midst of his health crisis he took the time to send me a link to something he thought I'd like. And he was right. It did my heart good to see the place I've always loved finally be appreciated and loved by other people, thanks to Game of Thrones. (Link below.)

I remember one wretched, rainy day long ago I drove my boyfriend at the time (he was visiting from England) on a 'scenic' tour. My car got stopped at a random Army checkpoint, and they couldn't believe that I was being a tour guide. "You're joking," said the point man, and his unit proceeded to take my car apart, searching for bombs and ammunition. They found nothing, of course. There was a very hairy moment, kneeling in a puddle in front of the Mini with rain pelting on me when I couldn't get the bonnet (hood) open. The soldiers stood in a semi-circle around me, their silence making me nervous. The rain dripped off the barrels of their Self Loading Rifles. I do want to share that all the British Army soldiers whom I met during those years were extremely polite and professional, always. I finally asked them to help, but naturally they couldn't touch the car at that point in case it was booby-trapped and I was a suicide bomber.

And my poor English weed of a boyfriend sat in the passenger seat the whole time, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as he tried to swallow his fright. Needless to say, we broke up shortly after that.

Happy days!