Snapshot, February 2020
Our staff and students are all practising writers, and we are privileged to preview works-in-progress, whether performed at events or just when they need to hear something out loud. Our SHC Presents nights are oppotunities to do just that, and during these days of lockdown we sorely miss those informal, sometimes impromptu moments.
Here is the first chapter of one of the many things our director Glenn Patterson is currently working on. Appropriately enough, it begins just outside our last, pre-lockdown SHC Presents night, in February 2020.
Sometimes you are just where you need to be, doing, without even knowing it, the very thing you need to be doing.
Just gone eight, the final Friday night in February, the 28th, 2020, I am in the Crescent Arts Centre, a Grade B1 listed Victorian building, and former girls’ school, not much more than half a mile from Belfast’s City Hall, at the Bradbury Place end of University Road – what I would call the bottom, though in polar terms it is the top, the apex, even: north to the south that is the fork, a couple of hundred yards away, where Queen’s University runs up against the Botanic Gardens, of University Road into Stranmillis Road on the left and Malone Road on the right. I am, more specifically, at the ground-floor bay window of the Crescent’s Pantry Café and Kitchen, having just stepped out of an event – The Seamus Heaney Centre Presents… Folk – in the Cube theatre, down the accessibility ramp, towards the rear of the building. I am a little raw. The ‘Presents’ resident DJ, Michael Staley (by day, the programmer of the nearby Queen’s Film Theatre), has just played Joe Holtaway’s aching, stripped-back, acoustic guitar and violin, cover of IDLES’ rousing hymn to unity and citizenship, ‘Danny Nedelko’: ‘My blood brother is an immigrant. A beautiful immigrant. My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury, a Nigerian mother of three…’
I heard it for the first time on BBC 6 Music, the Sunday before last as I drove through Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and nearly crashed the car. (I’m told Dusty Springfield nearly crashed hers too the first time she heard ‘West End Girls’ by the Pet Shop Boys. I mean, if it’s good enough for Dusty…) The song does not exist in any physical format, but Michael helped me track it down – track Joe down – and got hold of an mp3/wav file, which he has played now not once but twice. ‘Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain, pain leads to anger and anger leads to hate, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ah, ah, ah, ah, Danny Nedelko…’
Two mornings ago I walked with a close friend, who knows it very well and writes it even better, along London’s Brick Lane, a name I had always thought would be perfectly at home here in Belfast, and had a flashback, as we wended our way through grocers and mercers and haberdashers, to what were always referred to as the ‘good shopping streets’ of my childhood, the Shankill Road, the Woodstock Road, Sandy Row – another former brick manufacturing site, as it happens – the mouth of which I am staring into now from the window of the Crescent. Which is the only reason I can think of for me taking out my phone (the time bar tells me it is precisely 8:03pm) and holding it up to the right-hand pane and pressing down on the camera’s white circle with my thumb. It is dark, of course, or as dark as cities go, but I get, between me and Sandy Row, the Crescent forecourt – cement brick setts and pavers, a couple of picnic style tables-with-benches, and a curious blue object rising up five feet from the ground like a periscope – bordered by a sparse hedge intertwined with waist-high railings; I get, across four lanes of road, sloping away to the right and Bradbury Place, more railings, rising almost to head height at the lower end of the slope, set atop a hewn stone wall, which curves back on itself, forming a sort of promontory where University Road and the Lisburn Road, an alternative route from south to north, converge. It is the final few yards of the Lisburn Road (or if, you prefer, the first) that Sandy Row opens on to: I get the headlights of a car emerging – fitted, in the flat surface of the image on screen, between the tip of the promontory and the blue periscope – a single red taillight next to it, going in. I get an impression of the lights of the EuroSpar that occupies the corner of Sandy Row and Bradbury Place, and I get, full square and well-defined, the two-storey stucco house that occupies the opposite corner, where in the three-dimensional world Sandy Row meets an angled street, built up only on one side, whose much lower ground level can be inferred from the fact that a car roof – visible through all those railings (it’s actually on the Lisburn Road) – appears to come up to the door lintel. A sign next to an upper window on the second house along reads – or would read if I had the power to bring it into focus – Malone Place. The rest of the street shades into obscurity; actually it shades into a reflection of me, hard against the left edge of the frame, a bare interior lightbulb, likewise reflected, level with my temple, looking like the real-world counterpart of my bright idea to take the photo, at almost exactly the point where the houses (they date from the 1870s) give way to a larger building, squarish, flat-roofed. This is – or was – Malone Place Maternity Hospital and this is where, in August 1961, I was born.
I didn’t know then, 8:03pm, 28 February, that this was to be the last Friday night I would be out for the next three months; I didn’t know then – and already it seems incredible, as I write this sentence for the first time, on Tuesday 24 March, that I really, truly didn’t, none of us did – that our physical worlds were about to shrink, even as the virtual expanded (the next Seamus Heaney Centre Presents… event, on May Day – ‘Help’ – took place online, the readers and performers recording themselves on their phones, or, in the case of Joe Holtaway, getting a friend to film him, from what we had learned to call a safe social distance, as he went about his London neighbourhood delivering food to vulnerable and isolated refugees: ‘my blood brother is an immigrant’ in action); I didn’t know either that I would spend the hours that I eventually did contemplating that spur-of-the-moment Danny-Nedelko-Brick-Lane-propelled photograph, mining it for memory and association, so that it seemed at moments that I was passing the lockdown right there.
I am reminded of Pahom, the discontented central character in Tolstoy’s famous story, whose life becomes a scramble for ever more land, through deals and alliances and stratagems, until finally, having arrived in a distant tribal homeland, out in the vastness of the steppes, he is made an offer beyond even his dreams: whatever ground he can cover on foot in the course of a single day, marking, as he walks, with a spade, will be his: provided, that is, he returns to his starting point before nightfall. Which, after pushing himself and pushing himself, running finally, throwing away his coat, his boots, his flask, his cap, everything but the marking spade, he succeeds, just, in doing, and promptly falls down, dead. Thus, answering the question posed in the story’s title: ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ – enough to bury him in, ‘six feet from his head to his heels’.
I felt, the more I looked, and as the coronavirus numbers grew, that I had trailed my spade around for the best part of sixty years – trailed? waved it about my head, more like, practically pogoed on it sometimes – only to come back, without being aware of it, to the very beginning (head overlaid on hospital), which might also be the very end: this was my portion, or at least my point of entry: to the world and to the city that was my first experience of it. It was all right there – or the contours of it were (the 1820s Toll House where EuroSpar now stands was only one month away from the wrecking ball; at the other end of Bradbury Place, the new Ulster Bank on the northern side of Shaftesbury Square had not yet acquired its iconic ‘angels’ sculptures) – the day I left Malone Place, for ever after ‘The Hospital Where Our Glenn Was Born’, in my parents’ next-door neighbour Sid McCormick’s brother-in-law’s borrowed Austin.
(‘It wasn’t new, and it wasn’t big,’ my mum tells me, ‘but it was a lot more comfortable coming home than it was going in.’)
How far could I go, I wanted to know, if I never again got out of here?
Professor Glenn Patterson has been the Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's since 2017. Glenn has written three works of non-fiction including Backstop Land (2019), and ten novels, most recently Where Are We Now? (2020). With Colin Carberrry, he co-wrote the film Good Vibrations, for which the pair were nominated for Outstanding Debut at the 2014 BAFTA Film awards. He has written plays for Radio 3 and Radio 4, and with composer Neil Martin, he wrote Long Story Short: The Belfast Opera in 2016.