It’s book group tonight. I have missed the last two meetings. In January I was at the panto, in February I was in Ireland. Just as well I haven’t doublebooked myself this month as the book was my choice. It’s a novel by Sarah Moss called The Tidal Zone. I believe I wrote about here when I first read it last summer. It was my book of 2016, and it’s definitely in my current top ten of all time favourites.
The novel is written from the viewpoint of Adam, a stay at home dad and part time academic. I’m not going to go into the plot of the whole novel, just say that Adam’s current academic project is researching the rebuilding of Coventry cathedral which was lost in the bombing of the Second World War.
The writing is luminous, the descriptions of how the cathedral came to be rebuilt through the passion and vision of its architect Basil Spence, breathtaking. The project was an act of faith, and finishing the novel I knew I needed to make the long neglected trip to the Midlands to see it.
I went on Tuesday. Somehow I had imagined all of Coventry to have flattened during the war, so the streets and buildings that survived were a welcome surprise. I took my time, made my way across the city, circled the cathedral’s exterior, ate the lunch I had brought with me in sunshine. The glimpses of the jeweled glass I had seen through an open door on the north side were enough to tell me I shouldn’t be disappointed.
Whether I should have loved it so much had I not read The Tidal Zone I don’t know. Certainly passages from the novel echoed in my head as I walked around, the way Spence wanted the cathedral to reveal itself gradually, so that the glass in all its gorgeous glory is only appreciated as you move from west to east.
Westie Puppy is back in her Belfast home and thriving. MasterB has not been outside for two days. The birds are emptying one of the four feeders in the garden and ignoring the others.
Half past five tonight and it was still light. It is spring. The evidence is all around us in the shape of daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses. New shoots pierce the earth. Trees are in blossom. Neighbours are turning the earth in their gardens and planting small purchases made at flower nurseries. I went out without my gloves.
Today is St David’s Day, 1st March, just over two weeks to go before Ersatz Paddies take to the streets wearing dubious hats and swearing allegiance to Guinness. When I was a child being Irish was unfashionable. Actually, it was more than unfashionable, it was social leprosy. I remained largely ignorant of this due to Mother’s relentless programming. My sister and I were brought up to believe our half-Irishness was a miraculous bonus, something of pride and joy. Similarly being the daughters of a working mother when girls we knew at school had mothers who mainly stayed at home. How I looked down on them. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
I was around twelve when the penny finally dropped that I was doubly socially inferior as far as many of my classmates and their parents were concerned. At Mother’s funeral one of my cousins, the one who the rest of us see as being fantastically and unaccountably right wing, queried my description of Mother as Irish. It’s how she described herself, I replied. Another cousin said Mother would have called Derry Londonderry. No she didn’t, I said, hearing Mother’s voice in my head saying she came from Co Derry.
A few years ago Cousin and I deposited our grandmother’s autograph book at the Linenhall Library in Belfast. Much as we valued it, it seemed to have a significance beyond our family. It’s clear that my grandmother and her friends all considered themselves uncomplicatedly and proudly Irish. There are many patriotic entries for St Patrick’s Day; verses, pressed shamrocks, pen and ink drawings of harps. My grandmother signed the Ulster Covenant. Look online and you can find her name. I am guessing that post Partition she may have called herself British, but I don’t know. By then she was married and trapped in a cycle of pregnancy and increasing hardship, leading to her premature death in 1927. Continue reading
My Cousin Tom comments that the Titanic was fine when it left Belfast. The liner was built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolfe shipyard. Last summer I finally got around to visiting the revamped Titanic Quarter and was very impressed. Well worth a visit. It reminds you of the scale of the project, the pride the city had in its shipbuilding, the number of people involved, as well as the awful loss of life.
This memorial to the disaster stands outside Belfast's City Hall.
In the short time I have been away winter has begun to recede and make way for spring. Walking Westie Boy the past couple of days my heart has lifted to see the snowdrops and crocuses in gardens and by the roadside, fat lambs in the fields and yellow gorse in the lanes. The days are noticeably longer, dwindling to soft greys and blues as the sun streaks the clouds with pink.
While I looked, Westie Boy sniffed. He may have missed the rabbit that hopped ahead of us, but his nose twitched at burrows, his head disappeared down the entrances to larger animals' abodes, and we had a difference of opinion about the wisdom of rolling in cow dung and fox poo.
Ewes lifted their faces as we passed, keeping a watchful eye. Their lambs, less wary, bounced about them, or nuzzled at their bellies. Farmers were making the most of the extra daylight, working in the fields. Once the elderly golden retriever at the bottom of the hill rushed out barking, but when we passed on later walks, he slept on on the porch step.
I rarely have the chance to mooch about Belfast alone, and when I do I am struck by the buildings that speak of the city's past wealth and importance. Take this one for example. My little Olympus doesn't have a great zoom, so it's hard to appreciate all the details. It was the Scottish Provident Building, and has any number of references to Belfast and the things that made the city and surroundings: ship building and related industries, spinning, printing.
It overlooks City Hall which is pretty impressive in its own right. Note the statue of Queen Victoria. Surely the most memorialised monarch that ever lived.
The Courthouse is also something of a statement.
I like the statue of the Speaker.
I was aiming for Big Fish. It's more than a while since I have been up close to it.
When Mother saw the Harland and Wolfe gantries from the window of the 'plane her to excitement was palpable. To her, and to so many returners, they were and remain a powerful symbol of home.
Like London, Belfast grew to importance as a port, so the river plays a central role.
Nearby there are buildings that remind us of past trades.
The shopping arcades hint at a time of gracious shopping, when the democracy of pound shops and Lidl was not even dreamed of.
Crumbs, Friday already, just the weekend and then I fly home. Mind, I should be back in five weeks to enjoy a weekend of culture at the Heaney Homeplace with Cousin’s friend Ann. I have booked my flights this morning, and am texting and whatsapping to arrange cat care for my boy.
Last night we went to see Cousin’s brother, my cousin Tom, who has just retired as a church minister. He and his wife have their hands full packing up the contents of a house that has been home for some twenty years, finding somewhere new to live and visiting their eldest son daily in the hospital where he has been for nearly five months.
Tom was keen to offer me sets of books he will no longer have room for, or maybe I’d like the imposing and very fine sideboard his father thought would be perfect in a rectory. It wasn’t just the fact that the luggage allowance on Easyjet precludes such items that made my refusal more prompt than diplomatic; my own home is full to bursting.
The new house sounds promising, but it needs a lot of attention. Keep your fingers and toes crossed that the deal goes through quickly and the most disruptive work can be done before they move in. Retired Church of Ireland clergy do not get magnificent pensions, and this particular cleric has been giving his money to good causes for years.
So our talk ranged through family memories, Young Tom’s anticipated move to the Brain Injury Unit to begin his rehabilitation, removing polystyrene tiles from ceilings and the merits of plasterboard, whether their two cats may move to the country and live at Cousin’s while their dog (don’t stroke her, she may try to bite you) will move with them.
I'm enjoying a cup of coffee in the Linen Hall Library where Fiona and arranged to meet. But I am alone. Moments after leaving Cousin I found a message on my 'phone saying that Jake, the family Westie whose arrival in the McSpec household a few years ago when he was adopted by them brought such joy, is seriously ill and Fiona was dashing to the vet with him. Ominously, she said she did not expect to be bringing him home. I do hope she's wrong, and that Jake, whose health has not been great, can be put on the road to recovery and exerting his grumpy charms again. I have never met him, but he sounds a great wee character, and the Internet has secured him fans beyond his home.
The death of a pet is always hard, the anticipated death equally so. Those awful heart lurching moments of mixed fear, love and anxiety; dreading the vet's verdict even as you hope for a miracle. When we came back from Homeplace last night we watched the second part of The Secret Life of Dogs. For any of you reading this who struggle to understand friends' and neighbours' love and respect for their pets, do watch it, as you may begin to get an inkling of what immensely rich and wonderful relationships you are missing.
Back on the bus to Belfast. It would be fun to continue in this alliterative way, but the people I'm meeting have names that begin with F and J.
Fiona, known to WordPress readers as Speccy, and I have met once before by the Europa bus station. That was a summer's day. It's February now, and chill winds whistle and find unprotected gaps in clothing, seeking out the spaces between glove and sleeve, sneaking down the back of a collar and testing the advertised thermal qualities of underwear.
I should hate to disappoint a newly ennobled Octavia by refusing to comply with her request. So here are some pictures of Her Puppyness with all her dishevelled charm.
She may grow into her ears one day.
Getting photos of her awake and still is a challenge in itself. She is full of life, loves being with people and has a Miss Marple like interest in everything around her.
Day five of my holiday (or four if you don’t count Tuesday which was when I travelled) and this is my first post. I am sitting on a warm bus heading into Belfast and just beyond to visit Uncle Bill and his wife, and to go out to lunch with them and their elder son. I’m armed with a book for my uncle, chocolates for my aunt, and nothing for my cousin.
I have my ‘phone and its charger as since Monday the battery has starting running down very rapidly. I hope there is a power point on the bus home, or I may not be able to tell Cousin I am back at Toomebridge, and the walk to her house in the dark is not something I should like to attempt.
In contrast with my journey from London to Belfast n the summer, this time the ‘plane was half empty and we arrived twenty minutes ahead of schedule. It was still early afternoon, so we reached Cousin’s in daylight where I was greeted by Westie Boy and made Westie Puppy’s acquaintance. She belongs to one of Cousin’s daughters, and is a temporary resident while her toilet training is completed. She’s a rough and tumble scruff at the minute, and it’s hard to imagine her as a townie sophisticate in Belfast, sitting primly by her owners while they enjoy a cup of coffee in the city. Though she does love to sit beside you, to lie on your feet, so that bit will be fine, but I think we’ll have to get her used to the brush before her first public appearances. Continue reading