“Belfast – only a jumble of streets and a few big bumps in the ground, only a whisper of God.” –Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson, 1996
AS soon as I see the sign for the railway station on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue I start looking around for the teenager I once was. Shouldn’t he be around here somewhere, all flared trousers and acne?
Botanic, a name that immediately slips me back in time to the very start of the 1980s. This was always my entry point to the city. Day trips to the Northern Irish capital would start here.
Off the train from the north coast, up the ramp, then turn left on Botanic Avenue and cut across to University Road for another open day at Queen’s University. And then, as soon as possible, slope off again, down University Road, on past the BBC’s Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue, then through the security barriers opposite City Hall, past the RUC officers and soldiers carrying guns.
Belfast some 40 years ago. A different city to the one I find in 2022. It’s changed a lot in the years between then and now.
But then so have I.
Belfast is probably aging better. Like most cities, renewal and stagnation are fighting it out. In the city centre, at least, renewal seems to be winning.
There’s a cruise ship in the docks when we arrive and European and American accents floating in the air. Whether it’s the Titanic Quarter or the Game of Thrones effect, tourism is on the rise again after a Covid-induced blip (here’s hoping).
And yet Belfast remains itself. A city full of Goth girls and boys sporting the same extreme Peaky Blinders haircut. A city full of poetry (it’s even written on the walls in the Cathedral Quarter) and pubs and the sweet sing-snarl of the local accent.
The past is not forgotten. How can it be? In the city center there’s a busker playing Zombie by The Cranberries on his keyboards. The Troubles remain a muscle memory. But the city stretches beyond that. It has other stories to tell.
We are staying in the handsome Malone Hotel on Eglantine Avenue. This is redbrick south Belfast, quiet but for the blackbirds singing in the trees that line the streets. A short walk from the hotel and you are in studentland. The 19th-century Lanyon Building (itself a bit Gothically inclined) is the most familiar face of Queen’s University. The building my teenage self would travel to and then try to get away from.
Even closer is the Botanic Gardens within which the Ulster Museum can be found. The museum building is a sci-fi melding of 1920s classically-styled architecture with 1960s concrete brutalism. Inside artifacts and fine art fill its grand rooms. One of the first things you’ll see is the blackboard from the episode of the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls which spells out the difference between Protestants and Catholics (though it has to be said we never went to Newcastle on our holidays or kept our toaster in the cupboard, so maybe it’s not entirely accurate).
When I used to get off the train at Botanic in the early 1980s, the first pitstop was always Terri Hooley’s record shop Good Vibrations in Great Victoria Street – a wooden Elvis cut-out pointed the way – to pick up reggae 12-inches. (I still have my 12-inch copy of Spiritual Healing by Toots Hibbert).
Good Vibrations is long closed but there are 21st-century cultural alternatives. On Botanic Avenue the No Alibis book shop is a glorious haven for the bookish. As good a place as any to while away an afternoon.
Friday morning and we travel east to Saint George’s Market, where the fruits of the sea are laid out in front of us. Sea bream, sea bass, a shoal of sleek mackerel, all stripe and silver, caught in the Irish Sea, the sign says. Next to them are yellowtail tuna, gaping-mouthed salmon, deliquescent puddles of squid, buckets of lobsters, mandibles still twitching, rubber bands around their claws, mussels bagged up, cod gutted and skinned and turned into steaks ready for the pan.
The long-banished carnivore in me uncurls for a moment in the back of my head before I pull myself away and head for the veggie tacos at the other end of the hall.
But Saint George’s Market offers more than just food. It’s a very Northern Irish mixture of the beautiful and the bizarre. You can find antiques rubbing up against cheap T-shirts (“Titanic Built By Irishmen Sunk By An Englishman” one of them proclaims), insects caught in aspic a frozen hop away from toilet rolls and furniture polish.
As I look through a stall full of movie posters the owner asks if he can help. “That’s not a Belfast accent,” I tell him.
“I am from Belfast,” he says, then owns up. “No, Belgium. Came here for 3 months and 15 years later …”
You like it here then?
Who knew Belgian humor was so dry?
After filling our faces at the market, we walk back to the Cathedral Quarter of the city, an area which, as well as the imposing religious establishment – St Anne’s Cathedral – from which it derives its name, is full of bars and memories. On the wall a plaque marks the spot where the Harp Bar used to stand. “The home of Belfast Punk Rock,” it reads. Long before I started coming to this city bands like The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, The Outcasts and Rudi played here. Terri Hooley even started a record label for some of them.
Not far away another plaque marks the venue of Snow Patrol’s first gig. A reminder that there are other histories at play in Belfast, not only the obvious one.
Belfast is home to many stories. You can read them in the words of the city’s writers (all available in No Alibis), from Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson to Wendy Erskine, or you can hear it from the people who live here.
On our last morning we eat breakfast at the hotel and our waiter, the one with the Scouse accent, tells us he came here more than 20 years ago. “For a woman. What other reason?”
She sadly is no longer with us, he tells us. But he can’t imagine living anywhere else now. In other words, this is home.
Belfast is a city of writers and musicians and incomers. Get off at Botanic and turn right or left. It doesn’t matter. Either way you’ll have a story to tell.
Teddy Jamieson stayed at the Malone Hotel. Room rates start at £109 per room. Visit malonehotel.com. Aer Lingus flies from Edinburgh to Belfast City Airport. Visit aerlingus.com