T and I have spent the last few days in Belfast. One of our daughters was giving a TEDx talk there, and of course the proud parents wanted to attend - what a wonderful experience!
While we were there, we spent a couple of days roaming the city. It was her first ever visit, but T had done some work at BBC Belfast during the Troubles, and I had spent some very formative teenage years living on the northern fringes of the city. Neither of us had been back since.
I am still coming to terms with how the old place has changed. Have you ever had the experience of meeting with someone you haven't seen since you were 17? Belfast seemed at first to be a bit like my old school friends, completely recognisable but immensely changed by the passage of the years.
We stayed in a hotel which could have been in Shoreditch. It's reached through a passageway decorated with murals - there's the front courtyard, below.
It's fair to say that "hip" was not a word associated with the Belfast of my youth. This time, though, we were in the Cathedral Quarter, the city's hippest area, and believe me, I've never seen such a place for street art. In some areas, street art covered almost every metre of wall space. The image below was one wall of a huge courtyard entirely covered in paintings, all of them representing events or aspects of Northern Ireland both now and in the past.
It is approached by an alleyway, and the alley's roof is decorated with Yeats' "An Irish Airman Forsees his Death" - you can hear it, and read an explanation of it, here.
When you get into the square you see that one side consists of a life sized row of terraced houses, one of which is shown below. To see a whole row is quite unsettling.
Each window in the terrace has a meaning. I'd think the elephant, for instance, refers to a short movie directed by Danny Boyle about Northern Ireland refusing to "see the elephant" in its living room. (in case you're not familiar with the expression, it means you refuse to acknowledge something even though it cannot be ignored).
On the left you'll see a Catholic sitting room complete with a picture of the Pope, religious statuettes and a collecting box for missionary work. On the right is a gay couple with their cat staring out of the window. Above is an arm-wrestling match between the UVF and the IRA over a coffin. The lady in curlers is holding a mug from Santa Ponsa, and this recalls an amusing story about 'Northern Ireland's best boss,' a hairdresser who made a rash promise to his staff... (read about it here).
Above the houses is a black and white mural of Belfast folk before the recent troubles, and just visible on the left is a display of photos of real people who lived in this area sixty years ago.
Some of the imagery is pretty hard hitting, but there are also many moments of humour, and some well known Irish people appear. Can you spot George Best and Van Morrison below?
Well, here they are. Wonder who the fellow in the car is?
The Big Ben-like clock is the Albert Memorial Clock, a Belfast landmark. In the picture, the digital face shows 1690, the date of the Battle of the Boyne, cherished by Orangemen, and the hands show 1916, the date of the Easter Rising, which is dear to Republicans.
I'm still puzzling about the tiny detail below, to be found at the feet of the Orangeman standing by the "bóthar druidte" sign. It is a tiny little jockey jumping a rat over a cigarette packet, which says, in Polish, "Smoking Kills."
Someone needs to provide little booklets to explain some of these murals, don't they? In fact, there is a company offering tours of the murals of Belfast, but I don't know if it includes the likes of this square, which seems to belong to the nearby Duke of York pub. And I'm sure the tours don't take in the mural below, decorating one of the industrial buildings that still characterise the city. I think it's Belfast depicted in Native American style (or at least, I think the creature's head is the Albert Memorial Clock again, trailing clouds).
And here are some more murals reflected in the windows of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Square, which had the most delicious looking fresh fish I have seen outside Japan.
But murals aren't the only things to look at in Belfast. Its big white City Hall has a remarkable collection of modern stained glass windows representing different aspects of Northern Ireland's history. The one below is their take on the great famine. See the ship taking the starving wretches to a new life in America?
And I was dazzled by the variety of stained glass techniques in the window commemorating 100 years of Belfast life, with linen and aircraft making, agriculture, and scientific and artistic achievements. I particularly like how the rays of light from the atom are engraved into the glass and then coloured to catch the light.
I was pleased to see that the window also contains the "Salmon of Knowledge," next to the atom rays. (I've always liked the idea of a Salmon of Knowledge.) It refers to Fintan mac Bóchra, from Irish mythology, a seer who survived in the guise of a salmon for some years and passed on his wisdom when he changed back into a human once more.
It is very well worth taking the free tour of the City Hall. It is a good example of Edwardian architecture, with no expense spared (and it also has a great museum and coffee shop). Certainly, I saw enough splendid old buildings to remind me how my teenage years in Belfast gave me a lifelong love of 100-year-old architecture.
The City Hall tour's lots of fun, not stuffy at all, by the way. Here's a grandad being encouraged to model the Mayor's robes, and he got a round of applause afterwards.
There are more visual delights - here are mosaics in Belfast cathedral...
And isn't this drinking fountain great? It's from 1874, in remembrance of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, politician and philanthropist, and it is painted up in dazzling yellow.
I can't say goodbye to Belfast's public art without sharing this picture of the DeLorean from one of my favourite movies, "Back to the Future." DeLorean's in Belfast had already closed by the time the movie came out, but it lives on in a terrific mural of Belfast in Dali surrealist style.
One afternoon we managed to visit the Ulster Museum, where top priority for me was the tapestry of the "Game of Thrones." This popular series was filmed partly in Northern Ireland, and the tapestry is a kind of take-off of the Bayeux Tapestry, with each section telling a part of the story. I understand that after every episode, another section of the tapestry is added on to what already exists.
I'm not a "Game of Thrones" fan but this tapestry was a wonder, even if you don't know anything about the series.
We heard a good deal of street music around the city, which I don't remember in the Belfast I knew before. My favourite performer was this charming man, below, who was very proud of his fiddle-cum-vintage gramophone, which had exactly the right squeaky sound for the Central European folk music he was playing with vigour.
You'll wonder if we got the chance to see any of Belfast's official tourist attractions, not least the well known Titanic Belfast, which occupies an eye catching building in what used to be a drab industrial landscape. The answer is no, we saw nothing except the City Hall - but maybe next time.... And meanwhile I am very glad we took the trouble to walk around the streets and see all the sights available for free.
At the end of my stay, I felt that the old Belfast was still very much alive inside its new skin. Despite much redevelopment, it is still one of the great Victorian cities, and it is still full of friendly people who like a chat and are extremely attached to, and proud of the place. Just as before, though, I was also aware of strongly held religious and political sensitivities, so I was instinctively figuring out what kind of person was listening before I gave my own views. A strong moralistic streak still ran through some of the atttitudes I encountered - which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing, although I might draw the line at actually shooting drug dealers.
I'm still trying to put this new artistic, outward-looking Belfast together with the place I knew, and yes, I'm aware I was mainly in the centre of the city. Still, the more I think about it the more I start to believe that, like all great cities, Belfast is constantly reinventing itself. It is obviously full of talented and hardworking people, and if it can withstand the challenge that the coming couple of years could bring to its hard-won peace, there's no limit to what it could achieve.
One last thing. Just like when I lived in Belfast, I returned to England with Northern Irish money in my purse, and nobody in London would accept it, even though it is legal tender. Grr!