Gerald Dawe on “My Belfast… and the passion that cries out of the ordinary.”

In my recent contribution to a series of talks given at Lisburn Road Library for BBC NI, I recounted my upbringing in the Belfast of the 1950s and early 1960s. Here it is below…

‘My Belfast’ doesn’t exist anymore. It lives on in memories of another time – basically, when I grew up in the city in the 1950s and 1960s. In what follows, I’d like to think about that time and try and recapture what it’s like to revisit that past, in some reflections and extracts of poems of mine.

When I think of ‘My Belfast’ I’m thinking, firstly, of the decade of the 1950s. Belfast was still very much a post-war city then. The Blitz of 1941 remained etched in the landscape and even the words – ‘The War’ and ‘The Blitz’ resonated throughout conversations without any self-consciousness. ‘Before the war’, you’d hear, or ‘After the Blitz’. And ‘My Belfast’ was a very ‘spoken’ place too. People spoke intently to each other, after hand-shakes, often, or linked arms.

The world I recall of my upbringing was full-on, non-stop ‘talking’ – inside the house, and outside the house. People seemed to natter away in a questioning accent, looking directly at each other.

There was for me two worlds back then that sort of circled and intersected at times but stayed somewhat apart. Let me explain what I mean.

Inside the house the radio was never ‘off’ except when we were all asleep. The accents that came brashly tumbling through that large wooden box in the corner of the downstairs back room sounded different. Whether it was the weekly fare of ‘Worker’s Playtime’, during the Fifties, the radio, and eventually, the squat little television which moved into its hallowed place a-top of the radio, carried the voices and styles of other places into our home.

There was the Billy Cotton Band Show with its clarion call of an opening, followed by the somewhat stilted conversation of the band leader with one of his ‘troupe’ before the songs of Alan Breeze (what a glorious name for a singer) or Kathy Kay (‘The Fireside Girl’) cast a kind of spell around the fireplace.

The radio was our link to the big world outside and BBC was the fulcrum of that compass. As a boy of the fifties, weekends were cast in predictable slots of regular programmes that were the backdrop to our young lives. This extended into the early Sixties.

Sunday night wouldn’t have been Sunday night without ‘Sing Something Simple’ featuring the Adam Singers. And even though my irreverent mother re-christened the programme ‘Sing Something Sinful’, she would often hum along from the pantry or recount to us her mother’s (our grandmother’s) rendition of this or that classic song of praise.

Our house was full of music. The piano sat in the front room throughout the fifties as my grandmother taught elocution, (‘voice production’ as it was called) and piano to a generation of children from Belfast and further afield.

ELOCUTION DAY

When I am back in the long avenue
the houses glow and equal squares
of lawn drip with lilac and hydrangea.

Behind judicious curtains and cut-glass vase
my grandmother mimes vowels from a poem
by Longfellow as a neighbour’s daughter –
bobby socks and high heels – copies her
and in the long avenue it starts to rain lightly.

I would often hear the recitation of poems, monologues, along with music lessons, as the young and teenage pupils (and indeed some older folks) left their accents at the front door and started to acquire a form of English that sounded ‘proper’. Often, I think now, prior to heading to England, or further afield, to North America or Australia, to find a new life for themselves.

What was happening under the surface of the ‘province’ of which I was, like my school pals, an unthinking product, was another matter. But it was also a matter of language. And as a young lad I was curious – though I didn’t really know why – to hear the way some voices sounded so utterly different to my little world.

There was the salacious James Young who spoke an anarchic idiom of Belfast street-life with the kind of relish that made him sound as if he were speaking another language altogether than English. But underneath all this volubility there was – of course – other sounds which annually filled the head space of a young lad’s growing up in a society such as Northern Ireland’s in the 1950s, whether he liked it or not, or understood it or not. Portents, it can be said, for what would start bubbling up from such a divided society including the annual reporting of the thunderous Twelfth ‘celebrations’.

The sounds of industrial Belfast filled my night-life – fog horns, clanging of trams, then buses – and by morning, factory sirens, and the busyness of people going about their business from early on.

When the time came for secondary school (Orangefield, for me), I would travel across town – north-side to eastside – four buses daily and enjoy the freedom of being out and about, from dusky mornings to darkening afternoons.

The smells of the city were abundant too – fires would be lit early, so the air was heavy with smoky coal and slack. Packed buses with smokers upstairs, often wet from showers of rain. And the poor old Lagan back then struggled with the malodorous effluent of its industrial past. The harbour busy as ever, you could see from up on the Cave Hill, ships backing into their port as others reversed out on the lough and cleared landfall.

Belfast was simply a working city, if you had a job, you had a stake in it. The light spilled out of the shop fronts ‘down town’ and the seasons came and went with a predictability no one much talked about. Who said when we should play ‘conkers’ or ‘marlies’? No one did. It just happened to a rhythm of its own.

Whatever happened to those street games, played into the fading light or in the parks, kicking a football until you could hardly see where it was going, I have no way of knowing? Many years later I recalled that world and a similar setting in a poem called ‘Sin’:

SIN

Whatever was played on the bandstand
we never listened, like my sister’s
music-box forgotten on the landing
spinning away in its hall of mirrors.

The tennis pavilion, wooden and green,
was for the men – tattooed arms
at the pebbly windows, bye-laws
relating to Parks and Cemeteries.

The tall houses blindly surrounded
the knock of bowls and someone
calling out their instruction
to ladies all dressed in white.

On a bad night the foghorns sounded
like a muffled drum. People kept in.
It’d be a sin to go out on a night like that.
And they watched whatever passes.

Later, when silence fell,
you’d lie there, wide-awake,
listening for raised voices
and the passion that cries out of the ordinary.

And then, sometime around 1965, things changed. My uncle who had been in the RAF was demobbed and brought back with him long-playing records, purchased a gramophone, and sequestered in the front room, that’s where life took off at a new and exhilarating pace. The trade in LPs began downtown in Smithfield and in Dougie Knight’s, as friends and I started to catch up with the extraordinary shift in music that cascaded through our lives like an electric current. Belfast club-life took over. Sammy Huston’s Jazz Club, the Plaza, Betty Staffs’, the Maritime, the Floral Hall, Belfast came alive in a totally different way as the sounds of R ‘n’ B, Blues, and the acceptable face of high grade ‘pop’ featured on ‘Six Five Special’ and ‘Ready, Steady Go!’ before ‘Top of the Pops’, moved into its regular slot in our young lives.

Not only had we our own bands to dance to – Sam Mahood and the Just Five, The People, Frankie Connolly, the Styx, The Few – but those we listened to on our new transistor radios, were calling by and performing in places like Sammy Huston’s including (Lord have mercy) an unforgettably young Van Morrison jamming live on the tiny Jazz Club stage his version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

Fleetwood Mac’s session one Saturday afternoon in the Jazz Club shines still in my mind, another golden moment, sitting beside Peter Green as he drained a coke-a-cola. Or what about seeing a curly-headed, floral-jacketed Clapton walk on stage at the Ulster Hall with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and opened to a disbelieving full house Cream’s ‘White Room’.

Or Jimi Hendrix responding to the birthday wishes chanted by his adoring audience in the Whitla Hall with a guitar-solo that sounded for all the world as ‘Thank You Very Much’.

Oh yes. ‘My Belfast’ is music. Music. Music.

As Michael Longley has described it for an earlier generation’s love of jazz: ‘The spontaneity of this music must be one of the best antidotes against authoritarian systems that would tell us what to think and how to feel.’ The music we loved, in a revered, unexplained, uncomplicated fashion, defines ‘My Belfast’ in a way nothing else can ever do. Maybe it was a counter-culture. If it was, no one living it said so. But then things started to change, again.

By the latter stages of the sixties, school was out and working prospects loomed here, there and everywhere. Many friends started to move away. By the end of the decade I had made my own move.

In a poignant and eloquent self-portrait, broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland in March 1971, Stewart Parker, one of Belfast’s finest writers, conveyed something of the mood-change that was swirling around the younger generation of which I was part. Only a few years earlier  as a guest writer visiting our ‘A’ level class in Orangefield, I had listened to Parker, with his slightly American-inflected accent and style of dress, talk about Sylvia Plath, one of the poets included in the Faber Book of Modern Verse anthology, a ‘set text’ for examination. He had read among other poems, Plath’s spellbinding ‘Fever 103˚.’ It sent shock waves through the apprentice poet who kept his hopes at writing a big secret, even to himself. (That was the way we did things then!)

Here in his retrospective, Parker says some important things about ‘his’ Belfast and a vision which chimes very much with my own before concluding with a heart-breaking reading from Scott Fitzgerald’s powerful novel The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And when the next decade kicked off, Belfast entered a darkening age for so many of my generation and older.

Utterly unaware of what lay ahead, later that year, in the autumn of 1971, aged nineteen, I went off to the University of Ulster at Coleraine with my school pal, Brian Keenan and a new chapter started in my own life. But that, as we say, is a completely different story.

In this concluding poem I recall the moment my mother returned home from an Ella Fitzgerald concert in Belfast. Her surprising use of jive-talk struck a chord that sort of says it all:

THE JAZZ CLUB

It’s 1960 or thereabouts in the terrace
of seven houses, upper northside.
The blackout blinds are still up
but things are steadily improving.
Shops stay open late, the light
spills in rectangles from the windows.

Trolley buses clang and clank,
the mill of people going to movies,
meetings, dances, to the boat,
to the club, to church, and to Ella.
When she comes back in, the only
thing my mother says is, “I’m sent”.

Balancing Acts: Conversations with Gerald Dawe on a life in poetry, edited by Frank Ferguson has been recently published by Irish Academic Press. Gerald Dawe’s poems are quoted courtesy of The Gallery Press.


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