Monday, 27 June 2011

The jewel that is The Crown

It's sad to see that Belfast has been in the news again for all the wrong reasons, after a period of apparent peace and growing prosperity. And I want to help redress the balance. I see this blog as a place to celebrate, and reflect on, the good things in life. And Belfast is one of them.

A while ago, my husband and I took two 3-week photography trips around Northern Ireland, including ten days in Belfast. My husband needed to produce photographs for several books he had been commissioned to illustrate. Every minute of every day was taken up with photography. We found ourselves hoping it would rain, just so that we could have a day off! It didn't. We didn't. For six weeks (although we did once wake up to snow).

As with any city which has enjoyed a resurgence in its fortunes, Belfast is a heady mix of the old and new, alive with history but buzzing with new developments: the beautiful architecture of City Hall sits happily amongst smart new office and housing developments...

The beautiful interior of City Hall, from the dome
... the harbour is home to the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated Titanic was built and fitted-out; and the arts are thriving in all their forms. Down by the River Lagan, John Kindness's 'Big Fish' sculpture brings old and new together: created in 1999, it is clad in ceramic tiles decorated with texts and images chronicling the history of Belfast as far back as mediaeval times:

The Big Fish, which also contains a time capsule

But to me, the real jewel in the crown of this fine city is The Crown itself.

The Crown Liquor Saloon is a Grade A Listed building, standing on Great Victoria Street. Dating from 1826, it was extensively refurbished in 1885. In 1978, after a campaign by, amongst others, Sir John Betjeman, the National Trust acquired The Crown and restored it to its full Victorian glory.

And glorious it is too. A real gem. The exterior offers an enticing hint at what awaits you inside, with its elaborate tiles and delicate stained glass (designed to give the customers within a greater degree of privacy):

Stained glass window and elaborate ceramic tiling

And stepping inside really is like stepping back in time.

The Crown owes the beauty of its interior to Italian craftsmen. During the late 1800s, there was a resurgence in Catholic church-building in Northern Ireland, and many Italian craftsmen were employed on these projects. Some of these men were persuaded to work after hours on the refurbishment of The Crown, and their skills and attention to detail can be seen everywhere you look.

The bar is a feast of coloured ceramic tiles, beautifully-carved wood columns with Corinthian capitals, etched glass, decorated mirrors, and mosaics. There is a long 'alter' bar in red granite and a heated foot rail.

 The sumptuous bar: ceramics, mosaics, carved wood...

Customers wishing to have a little privacy can enjoy one of the ten individual booths, or 'snugs', which still have a bell for attracting the attention of the bar staff. Each snug is enclosed with carved wood panels and etched glass, and guarded by carved wooden lions and griffins:

'Fortune favours the brave'

And to add to the atmosphere even further, The Crown is lit by its original gas lamps, which occasionally putter, and which welcome the thirsty visitor with their homely, muggy odour.

Gas lamp, pounded tin ceiling and colourful mosaics

The Crown Liquor Saloon has seen, lived through and survived a lot of history. During 'the Troubles', it frequently suffered collateral damage owing to its proximity to the Europa Hotel, a favourite of visiting dignitaries, which had the dubious honour of being the most bombed hotel in the world.

It is so sad to think that a few people are intent on reversing the peace process in Northern Ireland. I do hope peace will prevail, and I hope that will be soon. Belfast, and indeed the whole of Northern Ireland, is full of gems like The Crown, and they deserve to be discovered, enjoyed and celebrated.

All photography © David Taylor Photography

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

How Dave Lee Travis helped make the world complete

I was at the 60th birthday party of a dear family friend recently. A terrific party, with lots of lovely people and a wonderfully warm atmosphere. Our friend made a moving speech, in which she mentioned that she was an only child, and that this meant that her friends had always been extremely important to her.

I'm an only child too, and it's a strange, somewhat unnatural state in which to grow up. It inevitably puts you at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to developing socially. I am fiercely loyal to my friends, but also fiercely independent and self-sufficient. This has meant being largely resistant to the joy other people, outside my close circle of friends, can bring to life.

It has only been in recent years that I've begun to recognise, and embrace, the warmth, pleasure and sunshine which other people have to offer. It may sound odd, but this has been a revelation to me. I think the following traditional African Xhosa proverb expresses it very well:

'Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu' 

'People are people through other people'

This is something which really struck home this morning when I read an online article about this year's Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4. The Reith Lectures were founded in 1948 by Sir John Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, with the aim of 'advancing public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest'.

Two of this year's five lectures will be given by the Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. The recording of her two lectures had to be undertaken in great secrecy, with the BBC even referring to her by the code name 'Maggie Philbin', a radio and television presenter, to ensure secrecy was maintained.

In an interview with Eddie Mair ahead of the broadcast of her lectures, Ms Suu Kyi spoke about her years under house arrest. She made special mention of Dave Lee Travis's requests programme - 'A Jolly Good Show' - on the BBC World Service, and spoke of how it had provided a particular lifeline for her. She said it had made her world 'much more complete'.

One thing she said touched me particularly:
'I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people's words.'
'... other people's words'. I was stunned when I read that. It made me realise that the one thing we really need in order to exist is other people.

To Ms Suu Kyi, cut off from humanity, this radio programme, with its listeners' requests, created an important sense of contact with the outside world. People's musical tastes, their hopes and dreams, their concerns and priorities, were reflected in the requests they sent in, and this helped satisfy Ms Suu Kyi's yearning for human contact and interaction.

I hope I'm beginning to appreciate how precious other people can be, how crucial they are to living a happy and fulfilled life, and losing my original default position of, well, vague suspicion! There are few things I love more than the smile on the face of a friend - and I'm learning that the smile on the face of a stranger may yet become the smile on the face of a friend.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Elves, the Shoemaker, and a pile of old... Ladybirds

In times of stress, or tiredness, when I wish simply to be soothed a little, I often find myself drawn to my small collection of Ladybird 'Well-Loved Tales', easy-reading books published from the mid-1960s onwards, on which I cut my reading teeth.

These fairy-tales were re-interpreted for Ladybird by Vera Southgate, and beautifully illustrated by Eric Winter and Robert Lumley. I remember being captivated as a child by the sumptuousness of Cinderella's ball-gowns, the menace of the ogre's face in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the handsome, jaunty figure of 'Puss in Boots'.

Sadly, I no longer possess the books I cherished as a youngster. I (rather too) generously handed them down to a younger cousin, assuming, I suppose, that she would care for them as I had. Huh. I think I only need say the words 'coloured' and 'crayons' and you'll be able to imagine the horror for yourself. It still makes me sad to contemplate that mindless destruction!

Happily, though, thanks to the wonders of eBay, I have rebuilt my collection, and have even added stories I never owned as a child. I find when I look through these delightful little books that they hold even more magic for me now than they did when I was a five year old. And much of this magic lies in the way these books were illustrated.

One of my favourites is 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' illustrated by Robert Lumley (this link not only includes the image from the front cover, but a synopsis and several other illustrations - well worth a look).

(This is wholly irrelevant, but compare any of the pictures of the shoemaker with this photograph of Mr Kidd, one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld's henchmen in 'Diamonds Are Forever', and tell me there's not a startling resemblance.)

When I look at this book now, I notice tiny details. For instance, the first illustration shows the shoemaker and his wife at their poor, rough table. The room is shabby. There is plaster missing from a wall and the laths show through (this is a popular motif for poverty which has been used in everything from 'Tom and Jerry' to 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', but no less effective for that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!).

Later on in the book, when the couple have become prosperous, we see them in the same room. But there is now a fire burning in the grate, the furniture is of higher quality, and the couple are better dressed and have acquired a cat. The colour tone of the whole image is much warmer than the one which opened the book.

A little later, when the couple discuss how to reward the elves, there is a beautiful illustration. Crisp winter light floods in through the latticed windows, there is a robin on the windowsill - a promise of Christmas - and I swear I can smell the snow outside, so vividly is this scene illustrated:

And there is nothing more magical than the illustration of the tiny clothes and shoes which the shoemaker and his wife prepare for the threadbare elves, to thank them for their hard work. Note the Christmas decorations - Christmas is always good for a bit of extra magic:

From the late 1970s onwards, the style of illustration changed dramatically, as you can see here. It's all very subjective, of course, but the later style, to me, is more 'cartoon' than the tiny pieces of art which accompanied the stories in the earlier books, and it holds little of the same magic.  

I was lucky enough a while ago to see a handful of the original watercolour drawings for the Well-Loved Tales series, in an exhibition on fairy tales at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle. They were considerably larger than the books in which they were used, their colours glowed, and they exuded nostalgia! I was transported straight back to my childhood wonderment... These truly were artistic masterpieces in their own right.