Belfast revisited: Lucy Caldwell returns to a brighter city

Lucy Caldwell left 'boring, introverted' Belfast in 1999, vowing never to return. When the novelist finally went back, she was amazed. But had the city changed? Or had she?
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The Independent Online

When I was growing up, I couldn't wait to get away from Belfast. It was small and boring, introverted and self-obsessed; there was nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I was born into one of the darkest and most turbulent years of the Troubles: the year the hunger strikes began, when within a few months Bobby Sands and nine others died; when things seemed to be spiralling irrevocably out of control. It was also the year that the first integrated school, Lagan College, was founded, in what was a desperate, hopeful bid to pre-empt future conflict and dissipate sectarian division by letting - by ensuring - that Protestants and Catholics mixed.

There were times, I think, when peace seemed not only unlikely, but impossible. But 13 years later, an end to the conflict was finally declared. The 1994 ceasefires and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were - of course - huge political milestones: theoretically, Northern Ireland could now begin to flourish in terms of the arts, property development, nightlife, tourism.

But it seemed to me that all the opportunities lay elsewhere, across the water. Even in peacetime, my school friends and I used to talk about how we'd get away, and where we'd go. In those early teenage years, it was all the rage to say that you wanted to be a marine biologist - ie swim with dolphins - and live in California. In the end, of course, most people stayed, as most people do. But I left, as I'd always promised myself I would. I promised myself, too, that I would never return.

And so it remained until last year, when I went back for almost three weeks - the longest period of time I've spent at "home" for years - to do research for a play, and my second novel, and to take part in a literary festival. Quite unexpectedly, I had the most incredible time.

Belfast was buzzing. I was dumbfounded. There were plays, talks, gigs; new designer boutiques and smart little cafés and bars, nightspots like the Potthouse, famous for its first-storey dance floor made of glass, and Café Vaudeville (slogan: "Better nouveau than never") a louche, bohemian-themed venue that opened in the summer of 2005 in the former headquarters of a bank in Arthur Street, five minutes from the City Hall. The "Cathedral Quarter", jammed with new restaurants and pubs, and already home to more than 50 arts organisations by day, was, to use a local expression, hiving, even on a cold and wet Sunday evening.

For the first time, it struck me that perhaps I'd go back, one day, for good. It felt extraordinary to be entertaining the possibility that there'd come a point when I'd choose Belfast over London. It was a giddy, and unsettling, feeling; like the start of a new love affair. So, I decided to return to Belfast to explore the city, and the possibility that I could, or would want to go back, properly.

***

Returning to Belfast shortly before Christmas, I hardly recognise the city these days: and so I begin my visit with a trip to the tourist information centre on Donegall Place. It's a bright, buzzing, open-plan office and shop, and even at 3pm on a dreary weekday afternoon it is packed. There are six or seven people working behind the desk, but, even so, the queue is so long that it's a good 10 minutes before I get to the front.

The girl smiles cheerfully and asks where I'm from. Here, I say, I'm from here. "How long have you lived here?" No, I say, I'm from here, I was born here and I grew up here: she blinks in disbelief. My mother is from England, and although she regards Belfast as her home - she has now spent more years in Belfast than she did in Bristol, and besides, this is the city she chose - she has retained her accent, and I have never had a Belfast accent, not really, not even when I was living here.

The young couple in front of me in the queue are Spanish and - it turns out - are on their honeymoon; I also meet two middle-aged Canadian sisters, a gaggle of French teenagers and a group of Australian backpackers in their early twenties. I thought Lonely Planet might have been joking when, in November, they voted Belfast as one of the coolest cities to visit in the world, but here, surrounded by visitors from every corner of the world, I realise there might be more than a grain of truth in its conviction.

Certainly, Belfast is noticeably more cosmopolitan these days. When I was growing up, a Cantonese restaurant and an Indian takeaway were unimaginably exotic; nowadays, you can find pretty much any cuisine you can think of in the city's glut of restaurants, gastropubs and cafés. In Zen, a relatively new Japanese restaurant on Adelaide Street, my parents and I drink lychee martinis and eat the best sushi I've tasted outside of London's Nobu. Most of the staff, and a surprising percentage of the clientele, are Asian; a statistic I recently heard comes to mind that the Chinese community alone numbers more than 10,000 people now.

When I was 12 years old, my family went to London for a weekend during Easter, and remember how shocked my sisters and I were at how many black and Asian people we saw. Unbelievable as it sounds, I don't think I'd seen a black person "in the flesh" before that holiday. Nowadays, you walk down any street in Belfast and chances are you'll hear young black people with broad Belfast accents.

Later on, I phone a friend, a Belfast-born theatre director, and confidently gay, and he takes me through the city's gay hot spots. In my teenage years, the handful of people I knew who were openly gay used to complain that there was nowhere to go, beyond the usual tired old places. Nowadays, there are several gay bars, and gay club nights at "straight" venues. In recent years, the scene has got a lot better: or at least it's got more candid.

Northern Ireland was the last place in the UK to decriminalise homosexuality, but, in what seems like an optimistic twist, the first gay wedding to be held in the UK took place almost exactly a year ago at Belfast's City Hall. As Grainne Close and her American partner Shannon Sickles arrived to celebrate their official partnership, however, they faced a strident crowd of protesters, led by members of Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, reciting biblical verses and waving banners that declared, "Sodomy is a sin". These were largely the same people who in 2001 picketed a line-dancing club, after Reverend Paisley declared in a sermon that it "clearly cater[ed] to the lusts of the flesh". There was much hilarity in the local press when someone pointed out that perhaps the ageing minister had confused line with lap dancing.

But it is all too easy, and perhaps dangerous, to mock these fundamentalist Protestant groups. They still represent an all-too-powerful, and keenly vociferous, segment of Northern Irish society. When challenged, Reverend David McIlveen of the Free Presbyterian Church's Morals and Standards Committee said that no dancing of any kind was acceptable. "As far as we are concerned," the BBC quoted him as saying, "we feel that dancing in any shape or form is incompatible with a Christian profession."

***

The following evening, I meet Michael Duke, the artistic director of Tinderbox Theatre Company, in the Crown Liquor Saloon in Great Victoria Street, opposite the Europa Hotel and the recently refurbished Grand Opera House. The Crown is the oldest bar in Belfast, and made famous in the 1947 film Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason. Michael - or Mick, as he is known - left Northern Ireland in the early eighties, and came back for good about three years ago. He stresses that the reasons he left were not directly to do with the Troubles and that, similarly, the peace following the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement were not why he came back. He left because there were far more exciting opportunities elsewhere, he says, and for years he lived out of a suitcase, travelling around Europe and the United States. He came back when he was offered the chance to direct a play and then "without intending to, without really thinking about".

Nowadays, theatre in Belfast is thriving: in the next booth along from Mick and I, the literary manager of Tinderbox, an energetic and infectiously enthusiastic Swede called Hanna Slättne is chairing a meeting of her fledgling Playwriting Network, which is seeking to bring all sorts of people - playwrights, directors, actors, literary managers - together to talk, share ideas, come up with schemes. Next Easter, for the first time, most of the small and independent theatre companies in Northern Ireland are collaborating to stage a weekend-long festival to be held in the new, "Cathedral Quarter" of Belfast.

This new festival will join a host of Belfast festivals, including - and this is by no means a comprehensive list - the Belfast Festival at Queen's, the newer Cathedral Arts Quarter Festival and the Irish language Clár Ealaíon. The very weekend I am home, in fact, a brand new festival is opening, based on the life and writings of CS Lewis, who lived for a time on my street.

Cultural life and nightlife in Belfast are booming: when I leave the Tourist Information Centre, I have so many pamphlets, booklets, flyers and listings magazines that the handles of the paper bag break before I've left the building. Time and time again, people I speak to who are involved in the arts - theatre directors, gallery owners, installation artists - lament the lack of an Assembly. Belfast has the energy, it's evident: lots of different people are doing lots of different things - but the city lacks infrastructure, most obviously in terms of funding. We need to be in charge of our own affairs, people tell me. We need to be able to decide who gets what, and what goes where.

This becomes something of a refrain. I talk to the people behind Barnabas Ventures, property developers involved in one of the city's newest and most ambitious projects, a development of upwards of £40m in the city's new "Linen Quarter". So-called "quarters" are springing up everywhere these days - the "Cathedral Quarter", the "Titanic Quarter" - perhaps as an unconscious response to a place that's too long been seen as a city of two halves. They tell me that they are planning an interactive educational Hope and History centre - the name is taken from a line of Seamus Heaney's poem "The Cure at Troy" - to remind people of what Belfast used to be like, and to celebrate what the city is becoming.

***

Yet going back to visit the city of my childhood, it turns out that I can't resist revisiting my childhood itself.

One evening I'm driving home along the dual carriageway past Forestside, one of Belfast's most popular shopping malls. It opened in March 1997, a bright, modern emporium housing a big Sainsbury's at one end - then one of only two outlets of the chain in Northern Ireland - and at the other, Marks & Spencer, beside its cheaper Irish rival Dunnes. There are around 30 other shops in total, ranging from HMV and Boots the Chemist to Warehouse, River Island, Oasis and Molton Brown. The mall, and the petrol station across the road, were built on the site of the old local supermarket, Supermac, and the Drumkeen Hotel, which was finally demolished after a series of bombings by the IRA. The popularity of the Forestside complex exceeded expectations, and there are long tailbacks of cars inching through the sequence of traffic lights around the car park. On a whim, I turn off the main road and drive up the steep hill to the estate where Leanne used to live.

Leanne was my best friend for most of my teenage years. She was a quick-witted strawberry-blonde, who was easily one of the cleverest and sharpest girls in our year. Our school, Strathearn, though technically non-denominational, was in East Belfast, and so was, by default, mainly Protestant. But the atmosphere was never particularly - or militantly - sectarian. There were occasional bomb scares - always hoaxes - and we'd have to file out on to the far end of the hockey pitch while police and army sniffer dogs searched the premises.

No one was scared. We knew that the IRA would never bomb a school; it was just another wearisome disruption intended to cause havoc, and we liked it better than fire drills because it got us out of lessons for longer. When the various paramilitary organisations announced their respective ceasefires in the latter half of 1994 - we were 13, and just starting third form, contemplating what GCSEs we'd begin studying for the following year - some girls declared that their parents swore that if there was a united Ireland, they'd be on the next ferry to Scotland. But I think a lot of it was talk; we were trying to impress each other; trying to outdo one another with swaggering "hard" talk.

Leanne used to wear her hair in three scrunchies - red, white and blue - and she was an avid Linfield supporter, never missing a match, home or away. Occasionally I went with her to the Linfield grounds at Windsor Park, where the Northern Irish team also played.

After we took our GCSEs, Leanne left school and worked as a hairdresser for a while, until, for some reason, she decided she didn't want to be a hairdresser any more and she got a job working for the DHSS. I stayed on at school, and went on a gap year to Mexico, and then on to university; although we stayed friends for a while, we gradually drifted apart, and I hadn't heard of her in years. But revisiting Belfast, and reflecting so much about the past, and about how much everything has changed, made me think of her, and miss her, and those times.

As I'm driving up the hill to her mother's house, I remember, all of a sudden, learning to drive, and persuading my mum to let me visit Leanne and show her my brand new car. It must only have been my second or third time on the roads, and it took about 10 minutes of stalling and fraught hill-starts before I negotiated what seemed at the time impossibly vertiginous hairpin bends.

After a couple of wrong turns in the maze of streets - my sense of direction has never been great, but do we really forget so quickly? - I find Leanne's old house, but there are no lights on inside and no one answers the door. A day or so later - in what seems an incredible coincidence - a Christmas card arrives in the post, addressed care of my parents' address in Leanne's distinctive curly writing. Enclosed is a photograph of a gorgeous baby boy, who, with his big blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair, is unquestionably his mummy's son. Jack was born in September, Leanne writes; he's the love of her life, and she's never been happier.

I look her phone number up in an online directory and ring her. She and her partner - who is, she says, believe it or not, a Catholic guy from Derry (and we laugh when she says "Derry" because, of course, Protestants don't call Londonderry by its abbreviated name) - are happy, living on the Isle of Man, where they've made a new home and life for themselves. A while ago, they were considering moving back to Belfast. They might, someday.

I feel a strange pang - of nostalgia? - thinking about how differently our lives have turned out. But then, I think, there are similarities, too. We both moved away, and we made new lives for ourselves in another country. We are happy for the moment, but we haven't ruled out the possibility that one day, we might - just might - end up coming home, after all. And, in the end, after everything, "home" is still Belfast.

For a little while, as I wander around my city, trying to see it with new eyes, I wonder if, deep down, it is me who has changed, rather than the place. But the external signs that Belfast is changing are irrefutable. I worried, initially, that the changes might turn out to be a case of "at first sight all is shiny and new, but scratch the surface and the old prejudices and suspicions still seethe". But Belfast is changing, and the inner signs are there, too: in the people, and in their attitudes, and in the energy, optimism and buzz there is about the place.

***

There is a billboard just outside the city centre declaring, "We love this city and we love these streets". When I first saw it, I couldn't help but read a touch of defiance into the statement: when I was growing up, people used to be ashamed or even apologetic of Belfast, or for coming from Belfast. And until relatively recently, I think I still was.

The English-born writer Ian Sansom, who moved to Northern Ireland a few years ago, noted that people would sometimes joke that the two most boring words in the English language were "Northern" and "Ireland". I felt like that, without even thinking about it; without questioning if it was still or justifiably the case. But the more I gazed at the sign, the more I thought, yes, it's true: I do love this city, and I do love these streets, and I am proud to be from here. And then I thought: new generations - today's schoolchildren, and my old best friend's new baby - won't glance twice at a sign like that, because they won't need to, because it will be naturally and effortlessly true.

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