Saturday, 26 December 2015


There's always a lot of stuff going on inside my head at the same time, at various levels of superficiality and various degrees of focus. I would quite fancy some chocolate fudge. The clouds seem to be lightening, so perhaps I could get my camera out in a while. My hands are looking kind of wrinkly on the keyboard and I must change my hand cream. I miss my boyfriend. I'm trying to remember some lines from a mid period Ciaran Carson poem. And there's a level at which I'm removed from and aware of all of those thoughts and feelings, while still experiencing each of them with all their nuances and details.

I tend to imagine that this is a uniquely twenty-first century type of consciousness, reflecting our sophistication and intelligence. In years past, I imagine that people were simpler creatures with less highly developed thought processes, probably more easily pleased, but less delicately attuned to shades of meaning. Less aware of the idiosyncrasies of their own psyches.

I ask my mum and dad, with whom I'm currently staying, what they think - not that they are unsophisticated creatures from centuries gone by. They think I'm wrong. The Psalms, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson are the work of people whose minds seem considerably more complex and multifaceted than my own. And there must have been innumerable others who thought in similar ways but didn't have the means of communicating to readers from the future. Ok, they are right. That wasn't a very long argument.

But I think I may still be right about people from the past being more easily pleased, in a good way. 

At Christmas, I love re-reading my granny's account of a girlhood Christmas in Ardara, County Donegal, around 1910...

Every winter there was a tea-meeting otherwise Social, in connection with the church & at Xmas an Xmas tree from which every member present received a gift. Every gift was numbered and numbers were distributed to each person & there was much applause when some stalwart fisherman received a toy horse & cart or perhaps a string of beads.

During the winter the farmers & fisher folk found their own amusement in family gatherings in their own homes. To these the minister & his wife were always invited. I remember the thrill I had when I was taken to one of them. At a duly appointed hour a horse & car drew up at the manse door & well wrapped with rugs we started on a five mile drive to the Point. I was always afraid that a stumble on the part of the horse would precipitate the passengers into the Bog through which the road ran but my fears were unfounded, nothing worse happening than the loss of a hair ribbon blown by the wind amongst the bog cotton. 

In due time we reached our destination. Our host & hostess greeted us with the local “You’re welcome down the Point” & when we had removed our outer garments we were ushered into the best parlour where the table was spread for dinner & in relays up to fifty people sat down to a sumptuous feast. My eyes often strayed to a corner of the room where in a glass case stood a doll two feet high, most beautifully dressed, holding in her arms a smaller one. A present from America it was considered much too good to be played with & so the little ones could only stand & gaze instead of having the joy of fondling it. 

When all had feasted, the table was finally cleared, the final washing was done & the women folk brought out their sprigging & Irish crochet work & a concert was begun. There was no musical instrument, but someone sang, another recited, another gave a reading, Stories were told until the midnight hour drew nigh when a cup of tea was passed round, the minister conducted family worship & we said good night & now with a change of coachman & horse we were driven back five miles and returned safely to the manse. 

The excitement and joy of this occasion always impresses me. It might still be an adventure for a child today, but I suspect that it wouldn't be remembered for so long and with quite such fond happiness. 

I think that we're harder to impress today, less open to a sense of wonder, cooler, in a bad way.

On Christmas Eve I spent several hours in my favourite cathedral, Ely. I love it, and I always find some new detail or view to delight me. But I imagine that, to an ordinary person from the eighteenth or sixteenth or thirteenth century, this building would have been the most amazing and wonderful thing they'd ever seen. The joyful decorations and celebrations of Christmas Eve there would have been unforgettable.

I wish I could see it through their eyes for even a moment. Feel a little more uncomplicated joy.

Saturday, 19 December 2015


It's a beautifully sunny December morning in Belfast, but I'm distracted, thinking back again and smiling at what I see.

I had short, layered hair with flicks at the sides. It was 1984, and wearing pastel coloured dungarees most of the time was considered normal. My turquoise glitter eyeliner sometimes got me into trouble at school. Most of my income, earned not very coolly by playing the organ in the little chapel of the local army barracks, was promptly spent on poorly made garments in Fresh Garbage or Miss Selfridge. If anyone had commented that I looked like the ill-conceived love-child of Princess Diana and "Borderline"-era Madonna, I would have been thrilled.

I was an unattractive mixture of genuine intellectual curiosity (I read all of George Eliot for fun and thought a lot of deep thoughts), considerable arrogance (I did know best, about everything) and undiscriminating pop culture love (the highlight of my week was the actually quite arduous task of taping the entire Top 40 by holding my cassette player up in front of the radio speakers).

It was time to apply for university. I could not wait to get out of Northern Ireland, and university would be my ticket to a bigger, more stylish life. More than anything, I wanted to be anonymous and independent. 

Coming from a big family, I had spent my life to date surrounded by aunties and great-uncles and family friends and acquaintances. Everything I did had been observed by people who knew me or my family and were liable to report back on anything problematic. My teacher was my cousins' auntie on the other side (which resulted in an embarrassing scene involving new glasses that I was supposed to wear to school but hid in my pocket each morning when I got to the end of the street). My headmaster went to school with my mum. Everybody new that I met was actually connected to me by a maximum of three degrees of separation. Their grandpa went to church with my next door neighbour. Or their mum worked with my uncle's friend. I lived in a giant spider's web of spies. Everybody knew everything about me already.

The answer was clearly to move to "the mainland" and start again, creating myself as I wanted to be seen. I applied to universities with that in mind. The local university was good. But it was about three miles away, and my dad worked there. And if I applied for a music degree, I'd probably know everybody else in the department already, from playing in orchestras and festivals with them for the last seven years.

And the city of Belfast was the least desirable place I could live. I still saw absolutely nothing appealing about it, felt no sense of belonging or pride or identity. 

All of that would be the case for many 18-year-olds, although at the time I thought I was quite unique. And there is much to be said for making a break from home at this age and setting out to be bold and independent. I was fortunate to be at this stage when university grants made it possible to study anywhere in the British Isles, if you were frugal and didn't expect too high a standard of living. It's different for the teenagers who pass through my sixth form classes now, often restricted in their choices by financial considerations.

But maybe coming from Belfast was different then. The Troubles still surrounded us. Northern Ireland was broken in half. There seemed only two identities available, and I didn't like the obvious one for me. Maybe it was because of my English dad. Maybe it was because of the tolerant, apolitical family of my County Down mum. And out of the country, whichever foot you kicked with, I knew that my accent would produce reactions of either pity or wariness. But it was out of the question that I would stay. Staying was keeping your feet in iron boots soldered to the pavement in Donegall Place. Leaving was the possibility of winged sandals.

I know Belfast looks good in these images. Did it look like this then? I don't know. As I wrote in my last post, it was always cool and beautiful. But perhaps, on the surface, it was grimier and more broken down. Perhaps the sun never shone like this on a December morning. Or perhaps we only see the beauty of a city we love.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Out of the question

Belfast is a cool and beautiful city. It always was, even back in the dark days.

I didn't know it then. The broken town of the 1970s made strangers of many of us. We did go into the city centre as teenagers. We queued at the Donegall Place check points where babies' prams were searched for bombs. We opened our proud new handbags as we entered every shop. It was vital to visit C&A's and Miss Selfridge and to check out the braver, punkier kids chilling in Corn Market.

But there was no freedom in our relationship with the city. Too many lovely Victorian streets were too close to danger. Once it was dark, it was definitely time to go home.

When I was eleven years old, my parents didn't want to take the risk of sending me to the university area school with which our family had been linked for generations. They had both gone there. So had aunts and uncles and grandparents.

But it was too dangerous for a child of my age to take buses across the city alone then. Out of the question. I was sent through safer suburbs to another school.

That necessary choice meant that during my teenage years I never wandered near the university, bought takeaways on the Lisburn Road, sat in the sun in Botanic Gardens. The danger became less urgent, but I never explored large parts of my own city. I had little sense of its history, beyond its recent infuriatingly troubled past. Belfast became, frankly, an embarrassment, somewhere I wanted to escape from as soon as I possibly could.

It was many years before I changed my mind.