Thursday, June 9, 2011

Come To Ulster



The Smithfield Market and Gresham Street area of central Belfast is now a mere sex shop-pockmarked shell of the shell it already was when I was growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The apparently fantastic market itself had been destroyed in a terrorist bombing at an early stage of the Troubles.

I do remember though going into the pet shop back then and seeing an elderly and thoroughly uncuddly simian creature huddled up in the fireplace behind the counter. On one occasion it was possibly smoking a roll-up but this could be my memory playing tricks on me. Further on up the street was the brilliant Harry Hall's second hand book shop with a wide range of volumes for sale including a particularly good Irish history selection I recall - many of antiquarian note. There was also a well-thumbed pile of second hand jazz mags for purchase by any interested gentleman peruser. Around the corner in turn was the alternative Just Books with a notice displayed prominently in the window stating that it reserved the right to refuse to serve anybody in uniform. I honestly wonder how your typically posh style or culture journalist could spin this kind of street life for modern day weekend supplements?

On one Belfast forum a while back somebody was recalling his days working in the area in the Seventies as a delivery driver. He remembered once having to park his goods vehicle into a particularly awkward space. When hailing a passing old age pensioner for assistance with the plea “Watch me reverse?” he was met with the reply “Why…do you think you’re good at it?”

In recent posts I have mentioned both George Best and James Young. When Best was on ITV's 1982 World Cup panel there was one moment during the programming when they showed a video of one of the Northern Ireland campaign songs for the tournament in Spain – Yer Man by Sammy Mackie. This entertainer – who performed in the guise of a typical fan and behaved like a plebian imbecile - made Ally’s Tartan Army singer Andy Cameron sound like a particularly young, fragile and wistful Nick Drake. On completion of the atrocity, and on returning to the studio, presenter Brian Moore awaited Best’s feedback. With not a solitary indication of cultural discomfort Best casually replied “Sure they’re all like that over there”.

As for James Young, I remember being told once how he absolutely loved to embarrass latecomers to his Group Theatre shows. One night while in full flow during the opening monologue a couple entered the auditorium and made their way to their seats. Young, on spotting the new arrivals and the fact that the gentleman was balding, joked “How are you doin’ Curly?” to be met with the witty rejoinder “Go and fuck yourself”.

Life is never easy on an ethnic frontier but rain and bigotry and everything aside….it wasn’t the worst place in the world.

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