Walking out, gloved and hatted against the chill January darkness, leaving behind the Golden Mile, Belfast’s cosmopolitan, Victorian-yet-modern commercial heart, still lit with Christmas decorations. Crossing the Albert Bridge by the Central Railway Station, heading east and turning right on Castlereagh Street. Now this is East Belfast. This is working people’s land, unimproved. Loyalist; tattered Ulster and Union Flags flap limply from poles. Windowless bookie shops, eyes averted in shame from the street-corner Christian Outreach Mission.
Left now on Beersbridge Road, Magee’s Corner Coffee House a scant concession to the Cappuccino generation. Otherwise the scene seems little changed in forty years. Small engineering workshops, Chinese and Chips. A wee boy speeds past in a Formula One pedal car, pristine, The Green Machine — a treasured Christmas present, no doubt — and hops into the paper shop proffering pennies. For what’ ‘Barnbracks, Wagon Wheels’‘ Passing the site of the Elmgrove Primary School on the right, now demolished, graffiti reinforces my anxiety: Muggins is not acceptable in East Belfast; is it a misspelling, or is Muggins me’
Now right, on Hyndford Street, hallowed ground. Narrow road, narrow pavements, the odd-numbered side crammed with squat, flat-fronted terraces, the even-numbered, first workshops, then terraces with a downstairs bay; no doubt an important status elevator in this humble place. Staring rudely at doorways on the odd-numbered side, finally here it is. 125 Hyndford Street, the brass plaque proudly polished. Singer Songwriter Van Morrison lived here 1945-1961. I pause, but only for seconds, not wishing to draw attention to myself, and consider how this simple landscape gave rise to the epic grandeur of Astral Weeks. Continuing, teenagers on the corner send a radio-controlled car shuttling in my direction ‘Walter and John, Katie and Ron used to hang out by the corner lamp light’. Left on Dunraven Avenue the flags are now of the UVF, reminding that the troubles, though dormant, are not ended, still less forgotten.
But we’re moving up-market now, crossing avenues, first Martinez, broader, tree-lined. Solid semis, drives housing Mondeo and Avensis. And then — passing the rectangular heft of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church — Cyprus Avenue. ‘The clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe’. Astral Weeks is playing continuously in my head, burned-in by innumerable repeats in my own teens. Pavements broader still, two men could lie end-to-end across these. The trees, pollarded, providing summer shade. These are Victorian merchants’ houses, the drives deep and curving, nestling today’s luxury carriages: SUV, Mercedes, BMW. Vermilion walls and picture rails glimpsed through broad double bays. This is where Van came to spy on his fourteen-year-old princess, ‘rainbow ribbons in her hair’. A bare half-mile from Hyndford Street. The avenue, lofty from the start, climbs steadily to the grandest of the grand houses, ‘way up on the avenue of trees’. Was it simply the verdant space that fired Van’s poetic imagination, or did he also dream of privilege and upward mobility’ Music was, no doubt, his inescapable passion, but it’s hard not to conclude it was also his one-way ticket from Hyndford Street.