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.

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