Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In search of some Sunday morning craic*

“Would you give that door a wee slam again, luv?”
So says the driver of the black taxi* I’ve just hailed. With the door satisfactorily slammed and the clutch rather unsatisfactorily engaged, we head off along the Fall’s Road toward Belfast city centre. The only other passenger is a pale and spotty youth plugged into his iPlayer. He glances over at me briefly and then withdraws into whatever world is beckoning him.
It’s Sunday morning and the streets are deserted except for a few pug-faced dog walkers, looking weary in the mercury light. A scattering of mass-goers emerges from the doorway of St. Paul’s on Cavendish Street and begins fumbling for their mobile phones. In the distance a heavy sky blends into the leaden slopes of the Black Mountain.
          I hear my own footfall as I walk past Fun Time Over 18s only gambling house in Castle Street. The blood red paint on its façade is shiny smooth where the winos of the past few decades have propped themselves up. A crisp bag tumbles by and seagulls squabble over the discarded remains of last night’s takeaways. “Morning Sweetheart!” I turn to catch the smile of a solitary jogger cruising by. Minutes later, raucous laughter rings out from a trio of hop-on-hop-off tour guides in Castle Place. Two of them are doubled up and the third reiterates the point, “I swear to God, that’s what yer man was wearing.”
         In the grounds of Belfast City Hall, a dog lifts its leg against the base of a mega-size television screen. Its owner is nowhere to be seen. With no non-canine audience, runners in the London marathon plod past, larger-than-real-life, unseen and unheard. The commentary fades when I turn left into May Street and walk eastward in the direction of St. George’s Market, the reason I got up early this morning and why I’m here now.
         On Sunday mornings the market is the only option open to shoppers in Belfast. In a concession to the churches, trading in Northern Ireland cannot commence until the last religious service has ended. However, while shops remain closed until 1.00 on “The Lord’s Day”, the market is allowed to open for business at 10.00, but only as a recent concession to tourists who complained there was nothing to do in Belfast on Sunday mornings. The initiative has been hugely successful. According to one report[1], up to three thousand people pass through its doors before they shut at 3.00.
         As I approach the market, the atmosphere becomes crisper. People overtake me, moving with purpose. Others come toward me, pulling shopping trolleys and heaving bags, presumably in the direction of their cars. There’s a buzz around the red brick building which has housed the market since Victorian times. Clusters of smokers stand about chatting; I cut past them and file in to the market behind a family of French tourists. Once over the threshold my senses refocus in response to the sudden change. A multi-dimensional collage of colour, smells and sounds embraces me. Stalls selling fresh fish, a variety of fruit and vegetables, homemade cakes, and Lebanese cuisine are just a few steps away. Beyond them is the first of the handicraft stalls, selling an array of angel-candles in pastel colours. Moving past it I see that there is also a small selection of books explaining the powers of Gabriel, Raphael and others. Angel Fever is big business in Belfast.
         I’m here because I’ve been told that on Sunday there are stalls specialising in arts and crafts, Meandering through them I see handmade organic soap, antique furniture, ornate (expensive) tapestries from the east, Nepalese shawls, Irish embroidered linen, handmade jewellery, second-hand books and displays of food from Spain, Italy, India and of course Ireland. Our national speciality is calories: hamburgers and sweets, and there are plenty of them.
Samples of fudge and chocolate are on offer at almost every turn. Reaching for piece of Turkish Delight I hear the strains of, “I want you so bad” and smile. Can it really be a coincidence that the musicians have chosen to play Dylan’s tune just as I’m seduced yet again? The music is live and the choice uplifting. Victor from Chile plays the charango with passion and skill. Dozens of shoppers have gathered and applaud at the end of each rendition. The atmosphere is vibrant and authentic. No mega size television screen here and no dog to piss on it.
         My notebook makes me new friends, “What are you writing? I used to write too. Just little thoughts about my life, about my troubles. But my wife threw all the notepads out with my scribblings in them, all of them.” The elderly man sighs and tells me he would have liked to have been a writer but now he sells second-hand books. At another book stall I hear a discussion about the attacks on Bombay Street at the start of “the troubles” in Belfast. Both men were youthful eye witnesses to history in 1969.
         A Chinese man smiles and tells me he carries a notepad too for his job. He’s an interpreter and sometimes works for the courts. In a sturdy Belfast accent that gives no hint of his origins, he tells me, “We get Chinese criminals lettin’ on they can’t speak English. Once I getta hold o’ them, they talk alright.”
Time passes quickly and by midday I suspect that St. George’s Market is probably the busiest and liveliest place in Belfast at this moment. Most of the excited chatter is coming from locals but there are also a lot of immigrants and a few tourists too. A posse of black-clad Italians removes their sunglasses for long enough to take a snapshot and then strolls on to the next photo opportunity, an Irish knitwear stall.
Not everything in the market pleases me. Possibly the largest display this morning is also, for me, the least attractive. A stall selling cheap looking, mass-produced handbags sits uneasily with the surrounding arts and crafts, striking a discordant note that has nothing to do with Victor and his charango. It’s out of character and I’m not sure why it’s there.
I leave behind the “craic” in St. George’s and notice that the lacklustre air outside in Belfast city centre is sharpening as shoppers begin to fill the streets. It’s almost 1.00 and now that the churches have had their say, it’s time for that other god, Consumerism to step up to the throne and await the offerings, and I suspect that there will be plenty of them.

* craic- the fun

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