Saturday, 28 May 2016


Last weekend was a big, happy one for our family. One of my six lovely nieces was married at a beautiful old church in Kent, with a rocking reception in the village hall.

It was a triumph of creativity, individuality and joy. Handmade paper flowers, hand-drawn orders of service, bright pink and red dresses for the bridesmaids, fish and chips for dinner, a particularly nice prosecco flowing freely, a five-layer cake baked by the groom, the bride's father's jazz playing in the background, speeches so funny and touching that a lot of mascara was also flowing freely.

A warm and personal occasion, perfect for the couple and family involved. When I shared my album of photographs on social media, many people commented "lovely photographs, especially because of the lovely people in them". So true.

Friday, 20 May 2016


This has been a week of feeling that I'm about to make some important choice or discovery, that there's a big deal hovering just beyond my grasp, just out of focus.

I catch sight of something, and excitement rises, and I think I have it, and if flits away again.

These images came from a walk in the woods at Redburn, where the light was filtered and funnelled by the trees, picking out little plants and flowers. The sun shone for a few seconds on its favourite bluebell, and then it was gone. It was all beautiful fleeting glimpses.

Just how my mind feels. I wish the sun would shine a little longer, so that I could grab hold of that elusive whatever...

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Tiny stories 1: Streets

This is where you notice him, the first day, on the corner of Fountainville Avenue. It's his hair and his eyes, and the angle he makes with the brick wall, slouching in his navy school uniform. 

Stephanie sees you noticing. She and Angela rake you the whole way up the road. This is the function of your friends: to make a complete mockery of every tentative attraction, while simultaneously providing it with plenty of oxygen for potential healthy growth. You'd do the same for them.

Three days later, by means of your extensive network of spies, you find out his name. Daniel Healy. Ds and Hs appear in a range of different scripts at the back of your maths exercise book.

You and Stephanie and Angela talk about how you'll get fake IDs and go to the Eg, and maybe Daniel and his friends will be there. Angela says she got in one night with her big sister. To be honest, you don't exactly know what a fake ID looks like. You start planning your outfit anyway. 

You've worked out that Daniel lives up one of these streets, Derryvolgie or maybe Adelaide Park. One afternoon before your violin lesson, when Stephanie and Angela are at netball, you walk carefully up and down, assessing each house for evidence of the Healy family. His mum would probably have the garden really nice. His dad would be out at work now, but he'd drive home in a Volvo at six o'clock and swing his little sisters round and round when they run out to meet him.

On Saturday at orchestra, Aoife Curry tells you that Daniel doesn't live on the Lisburn Road at all. That's his friend Mark. Daniel lives in the Holy Land, with his mum and Anna and Nicky. His dad doesn't drive a Volvo or swing anyone round. He was killed four years ago in an accident on the M1.

Also, she says, Daniel just started going out with Jennifer Thompson, who has naturally blonde hair and grade eight French horn. Everybody knows that brass players are the best kissers, but you hadn't thought until now about it being girls too. 

You think about all this a lot, with a permanent cramp in your stomach. You're quieter even than usual. Stephanie and Angela tell you he was never worth it and exchange glances as you try to casually brush away a tear that you didn't mean to cry.

Later that summer, though, you decide that Stephanie's stupid next door neighbour Michael has improved quite a lot now that he is taller, and you start casually hanging out in her back garden in your newly cut-off Levis. It's hard to build up much of a tan when your family holiday is at your granny's in Aberdeen, but at least your legs are long and thin. Longer and thinner, you can't help thinking, than Jennifer Thompson's.

You're home from Bristol for the summer and your mum paid for you to get your hair done "properly, for a change". Afterwards, since it's a gorgeous day, you buy yourself a Polly Pineapple and sit in Cranmore Park for a while. 

He sits down at the other end of the bench. 

He's at Glasgow doing English and Philosophy. He has one more year to go. He's on his way from Mark's house to his evening bar job. It's weird being home for him too. He keeps in touch with Mark, of course, but that's really all. Anna and Nicky are in sixth form now and a bit wild. He's trying to keep an eye on them but they just laugh at him. It's great to see you. You must meet up over the summer.

The strange thing is that this is actually the first time he's spoken to you. Doesn't he know this? It was like he knew you already.

You don't meet up over the summer.

After the wedding, Stephanie and Michael move into a house at the bottom of Larkstone Street. It's right beside the railway tracks, but you get used to the noise after a while.

You visit them every time you're home. That's what you call it when you're talking to them, though Belfast doesn't feel like home any more. You sit on their sofa, drinking the red wine Mike chose specially for you, and a flash of pity catches you. Your own life feels bigger than Larkstone Street.

Steph and Mike's party is tonight. Your heart isn't really in it. Redundancy doesn't feel like a great chance to reinvent your life just the way you want it. It catches you in the stomach, the way grief always does. It makes you feel like hiding in your parents' spare room, like the useless thing you are now.

But when your mum, who is possibly wiser than you think, suggests a nice evening helping her clear out the attic, you put on some black eyeliner and an outfit that doesn't reek of self-pity and get your dad to drop you on the Lisburn Road. He quite likes being your chauffeur these days.

Steph looks gorgeous. She has been loyal over the last couple of weeks, trying hard to lift your spirits, collaborating with your mum and dad. She's glad you're here. You're glad of your eyeliner. And you're glad you came too. The party is mellow. You only know a few people, but it's Belfast, and even the people you don't know know someone you do. Your stomach begins to unclench.

The doorbell rings again. It's Mark, Steph says, and that friend of his from school.

You've rented a house in Melrose Street. The landlord allowed you to strip the living room walls back to the brick. It's going to look fantastic. 

You're up a ladder, trying to position the Velcro strip of your Roman blind, when you notice it. The angle, as he slouches in his navy t-shirt against the wall, beside you. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Three Cambridge days

August 1973
Last summer, my cousin and I were pink floral bridesmaids for our auntie. Now we are being rewarded with a holiday at her house in Cambridge. We are disappointing guests. Both of us spend all of our time reading novels, which we carry with us everywhere we go. We're too shy to chat.

Two exciting things happen during our visit, though. We are taken for a picnic, and when our auntie gets out our pudding, a tupperware bowl of jelly, it has melted. Little mandarin segments are swimming like fish in a swishing syrupy orange pond. This is not the sort of thing that happens in Belfast, where the temperature is always about ten degrees colder.

And we find terrapins at the market. I am entranced by these tiny, flailing fellows. Their little black eyes look straight at me. They want to be my friends, so I decide to buy two and take them home. I start to count out my money. My auntie stops me. The terrapins wouldn't like to go on the plane, she says, and also my mum won't be pleased to see them. Neither of these sounds very likely to me and I protest. But my auntie is firm. My new friends watch sadly from their tank as I am dragged away across the market cobbles.

December 1983
Here I am again, at Cambridge University's music department, doing my interview. It isn't going well. I can play some pieces on the piano. I can do the task where you're locked in a room with a string quartet score and have to learn it from memory. But when I'm required to speak, it's not so good. 

I'm asked what sort of music I like best. Contemporary music, such as Stravinsky, I reply. They roll their eyes. The pieces by Stravinsky which I name were composed seventy years ago. And, to be honest, I don't really like them that much. I just can't think of anything else to say.

At eighteen, I am not articulate. Or even thoughtful, about anything the university cares about. I am also acutely Northern Irish, and today I feel like a poor relation in this clever, confident city. I look at the other prospective students in the waiting room and know that this is not a place for me.

My letter of rejection arrives at the start of the Christmas holidays.

April 2005
I leave the conference a little early and make my way to Auntie's Tea Shop. I'm meeting J for our second date. 

I pick at a scone I'm too nervous to eat, while he tells me about the first time he came here, an uncouth American, and distressed the waitress by ordering both milk and lemon for his tea. They did not turn out to be a good combination. I relax.

We wander through the city in the warm, late afternoon sunshine. We visit the market and I tell him about the terrapins. I show him St Catherine's College, which I failed to get into. We take a punt out on the river. At first I'm terrified for him, in case he falls in and it's all incredibly embarrassing. But he turns out to be good at this. 

We open a bottle of wine and float gently along. It's restful, watching the old, honey-toned walls as we pass, thinking about a summer to come and maybe more of a future to follow.

Sunday, 1 May 2016


Newtownards, Albertbridge, Castlereagh, Woodstock, Cregagh, Ravenhill, Ormeau, Malone, Lisburn, Donegall, Falls, Springfield, Shankill, Crumlin, Oldpark, Cliftonville, Antrim, Limestone, Cavehill, York. The spokes of Belfast's rickety wheel.

When you're from Belfast, you identify yourself by your spoke, one of the ancient roads radiating out from the city centre. The Newtownards Road is mine - a ramshackle slope of memories, disappointments and barely visible beauty.

And for many of us, the other spokes are unfamiliar, bordering on foreign. History and circumstance kept us chalking hopscotch on the pavements of our own streets, hurrying straight back home from pocket money sprees in Donegall Place, buying adult houses near our old primary schools.

I was in my forties before I'd walked along the Falls Road, one of the furthest spokes from my own. The City Cemetery was a particularly exciting discovery, and I asked my parents why we'd never been taken there as children. Thoughtless - the reasons were so many and so painful. In an ordinary city, we'd have gone on Sunday afternoon walks there. Belfast wasn't ordinary.

One of my long-term photography projects is my Belfast Street Odyssey. Last weekend, I walked and photographed part of the Falls, from the cemetery down to the Carnegie Library. I compared it to the Newtownards Road. Better views. Prettier nineteenth century buildings. More gaps and waste land. The same urban details that I love finding all over the city. A sense of apprehension giving way to exhilaration and then mainly thinking about whether I might save up for a new lens. Ordinary stuff, as it should be.