My first trip to Belfast would have been when I was about six years old. My dad took me down on the bus. I’d never been in a city before and I just loved the buzz and the unique aromas of the city. Coming from a small rural village I couldn’t believe the actual volume of the noise around and about the streets. In my home town, Magherafelt, if someone sneezed up the town it was news in the following week’s edition of The Mid Ulster Mail, and, most likely on the front page at that.
My memories of that precious trip to Belfast are of streets crammed with exotic cars; lorries packed so high you felt they might actually topple over; my first ever sighting of a double-decker bus; the same streets absolutely bursting with busy and hyper people mostly laughing and joking; chilled people gilding along the footpaths and, the hustle and bustle of Woolworths, crammed so full you could hardly move through it. The shop assistants appeared so sophisticated with their chic make-up so expertly applied they looked just like movie stars. But packed though Woolworths was, my dad worked his way around the super-shop diligently buying hardware: hinges; brackets; nails; thingamabobs and cuttermegigs, lots of cuttermegigs. Things, which on paper he’d no need for, but then over the course of the next few years bit by bit, item by item, they’d all get used up and used in a manner that was always vital to making pieces of furniture and suchlike that had such a positive impact on our lives we invariably found ourselves wondering how exactly we’d ever managed to do without them. In a way I suppose that’s where I picked up the habit of hoarding; yes hoarding things like: locations; words; character-sketches; accents; traits and sayings. You just never know when they’re going to come in handy, do you?
The memories of that day, both of my introduction to the tangible excitement of Belfast and of being there with my father, have stuck with me so far through my life, and very vividly at that.
I have to admit I was up in Magherafelt while the Beatles were on stage at the Ritz Cinema on 8th November 1963. I would have been sitting down to tea with my family when they would have appeared on BBC TV at 18.10 and UTV at 18.30. Playwright Alun Own was in Belfast observing John, Paul, George, Ringo, Mal and Neil and the fans very closely that night for a screenplay he was working on. We have to assume he would have been inspired with both band and fans and worked some of the ideas from his Belfast research into scenes for the final script of A Hard Day’s Night.
Since those early days Belfast has always been close to my heart. There has always been something mystical about the city for me. I will admit I don’t really know why. Possibly it might have something to do with the fact that the grand city was home to George Best, Van Morrison and Alex Higgins, a trio of geniuses so talented in their chosen field that - although while all three were most certainly outstanding in their fields, sadly the fields were empty bar themselves - the world has just never been big enough for them.
Following my trip with my dad my next memories of Belfast are of visiting the city in my teenage years seeking bookings for my first group, the Blues by Five. It would have been on some of those adventures I would have been lucky enough to see and hear Taste, The Interns, Cheese, The Gentry, Sam Mahood and The Soul Foundation (Sam was way, way ahead of his time) and The Method, in places the likes of The Maritime Club, Sammy Huston’s Jazz Club, Betty Staffs, and Clarks Dance Studio. Sadly I never got to witness a live performance by Them but I did witness one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended one Saturday afternoon when The Interns played at Them’s old stomping ground, The Maritime Club. We - The Blues by Five & manager - had a group trip down into Belfast on 23rd July 1967 to witness the Small Faces do an absolutely blistering set at the Floral Hall. There were also a couple Northern Irish bands on the bill that night - I seem to remember The Interns being one of them, but I couldn’t swear to that. The Pink Floyd also played at the Floral Hall in April the same year but for some reason or other we didn’t make it down to Belfast for that show, catching them instead up at the Flamingo in Ballymena.
Later again came The Pound, Good Vibrations, The Ulster Hall, Fruupp and EMS at Queen’s Student’s Union.
Even when I moved to London in 1967 I still retained my strong links and connection with Belfast. I became the “London Correspondent” for all pop/contemporary/progressive music for City Week, a Belfast newspaper, which eventually morphed into Thursday Magazine. But more about that later.
During the Troubles, while living in London, I booked all the music acts into Queens University (and the Irish University circuit) and it was during that period I got to know the Queens campus area of Belfast very well working with Queen’s ace social secretaries, Gary Mills, Tim Nicholson, Roy Dickson, Allister McDowell, Brian Gryzmek and John McGrath while we persuaded people as diverse as Chuck Berry, The Stranglers, The Clash, Loudon Wainwright III, Stackridge, Mike Nesbitt, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Clash, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and Elton John to visit while boasting, truthfully, that they’d get the best reception of their lives while on a Belfast stage. Conversely, but we never admitted this in advance, should the said act, shall we say, not be at the top of their game performance wise… well then, there were few other stages, excepting Glasgow of course, where they’d wish to be caught out, as it were. In the interest of full disclosure all the above mentioned artists enjoyed rapturous receptions while in Belfast.
In my City Week/Thursday Magazine days, as I said, I covered the London music scene with a special emphasis on the Irish/Ulster acts doing well in the UK. I went to see Herbie Armstrong and Rod Demick (aka Demick & Armstrong - an act from Ulster formed out of the ashes of The Wheels) performing at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand in London. During the course of the evening they performed a song called Friday’s Child which Herbie introduced as a song written by his mate Van Morrison. In my following week’s City Week column I mentioned the show and particularly the song Friday’s Child. I’d never heard it before and couldn’t find a recorded version of it. I asked “if anyone out there” knew where I could find a copy. A few days after that week’s paper was published an envelope addressed to me was dropped off at the City Week office in Pottingers Entry. In the envelope was a mint copy of a single on the Major Minor label. The A side of the 1967 single (D410) was a re-release of Gloria (the original B side of Them’s hit, Baby Please Don’t Go) and on the B-side … yep, you guess it, Friday’s Child. Also in the envelope was a very nice and gracious note from a Mrs Violet Morrison, none other than the mother of Van and a fine singer herself. The only reason I mention this here is due to the fact that when I’m walking about the streets of Belfast the song which most frequently comes to mind is the very same Friday’s Child.
You don’t really get to know a city until you’ve walked it. Recently I had reason to spend a few weeks in Belfast; I probably wore out a pair of shoes in those couple of weeks. In Down On Cyprus Avenue the main character, McCusker, likes to walk absolutely everywhere. Lucky for him Belfast is an extremely walkable city. He loves to ramble about the city being seriously distracted by the incredible historical and dramatic buildings. Buildings like the City Hall where, during my research for Down On Cyprus Avenue, I was allowed to spend several hours investigating it from the inside. As I checked out the breath-taking beautiful building I couldn’t help thinking that the City Hall was so big, one could quite possibly fit all of Magherafelt into it. Well, at the very least, all of the Magherafelt I had left in the 1960s.
But back to McCusker.
McCusker had a cameo appearance in the Christy Kennedy 2002 mystery, I’ve Heard the Banshee Sing (as did Inspector Starrett.) I liked McCusker. I liked the way his mind worked. He’s is fearless of the investigation, he doesn’t see it as a chore. He’s not jaded and is genuinely excited about leaving his paper-pushing days of the RUC behind him in favour of front line investigating as an agency cop. He is driven not as much by apprehending the guilty as by protecting the innocent. He was (and is) a real pleasure to work with. But I couldn’t see a way of making it work in Portrush as I was already covering the rural setting with The Inspector Starrett series set in Donegal and the Castlemartin novels set in Mid Ulster. Time passed, as it has a habit of doing, I kept thinking about McCusker and the more I visited Belfast for concerts and book events the more I wanted to write about the city. So then I started to think about how it might be possible to set a McCusker mystery in Belfast and in that thought McCusker’s back story was born.
McCusker was a detective inspector stationed in Portrush. He dabbled at playing golf, more for the social opportunities than for the sport. He and his wife, Anna Stringer (McCusker always refers to her by her maiden name) successfully accumulated several properties which they (well Anna really) rented out. The idea was on McCusker’s retirement they would sell their property portfolio and retire on the proceeds. When the Patten Agreement offered a handsome payment for those willing to take early retirement during the transition from the RUC to the PSNI, McCusker bit their hand off. He was happy to give up what had become more of a paper-pushing chore than the art of detecting he’d originally joined up for. Anna Stringer perhaps fearing becoming a golf widow, (perhaps not, we never get to hear her side of the story in the first mystery) quiet and subtle as you like, sold off all the properties and disappeared with the aforementioned nest egg. The Patten payment was clearly not enough to last McCusker the remainder of his days. The only thing McCusker knows how to do, the only thing he wants to do, is detect. The Patten Agreement forbids retired officers from being reinstated but Grafton’s Agency (Belfast’s answer to USA’s Pinkerton Agency) took him on as a temp-agency cop (nickname Yellow Tops after the inferior in-house supermarket brands) and found him employment with the PSNI in the Custom House, Belfast. The PSNI aren’t actually stationed at the Custom House but I thought it ideal for McCusker’s team. I did get to spend a few hours in there and it really is an amazing building with an incredible history.
One of the original ideas for the McCusker Mysteries (hopefully plural) was to have D.S. Willie John Barr (no ‘e’) as McCusker’s side-kick, as was the case in the two McCusker short stories, Based On A True Story (included in this year’s Mammoth Book of Best British Crime - No. 11) and the Case of The Humming Bee. However when I came to start work on Down On Cyprus Avenue I had to deal with the fact that McCusker would have to be a Yellow Top and as such would have no real authority or seniority in the PSNI structure. So I introduced D.I. Lily O’Carroll who arrived on the page fully formed and who consequently quite literally forced her way into the partnership. Barr is still around though in what is also becoming a very important role.
The Case of The Humming Bees brings us back nicely to McCusker’s preoccupation with the beautiful and historic buildings in Belfast in that it is entirely set in The Ulster Hall. The Ulster Hall was built in 1859 and designed by William J. Barre (with an ‘e’ this time.) The Ulster Hall is the hallowed concert hall we all visited to be in the presence of the greatness that was Rory Gallagher. Rory played there on numerous occasions either with Taste or, later, with his own band. A Donegal born, Cork bred man who also spent a lot of time soaking up the Belfast vibe and giving it all back to the audiences in spades at a time when few artists were visiting Belfast. The photos (but not the music) on the Live Taste album are from the Ulster Hall. The album was in fact recorded in Montreux Casino, Switzerland on the 31st August 1970. The album was released on Polydor on 1st January 1971 with my (short) sleeve notes. Sixty-four days later on Friday 5th March 1971 Led Zeppelin took to the stage in the Ulster Hall, Belfast and performed for the first time in the world a new song by the name of Stairway To Heaven.
In 2014 McCusker reckons that he and Belfast were starting over again at the same time. They both reached a good point in their life cycle and both seemed very happy to be doing so. McCusker for his part is thrilled to be getting to know the city; getting to know it in this era.
I have my father, Andrew, to thank for introducing me to Belfast. McCusker (indirectly) has Anna Stringer to thank. Yes he still has things/issues he needs to address and resolve but he frequently reminds himself about what he’d committed himself to when he left Portrush. He’d promised himself that he would forget the past, ignore the future, and get lost in the present.
Talking about the present I’d like to thank the Dufour fab four for producing such a handsome volume of Down On Cyprus Avenue and getting it out there into the world (November 2014.) I’m continuously humbled by this entire magical process.
This time I've been listening a lot to Leonard Cohen's beautiful new album, Popular Problems. To my ears a true classic and the best album of the year so far by a country mile.
Until the next time,