18th February 2008. Fake tan's all the go in Belfast. I lost count of the women who looked like they’d battled headlong through a blizzard of Bisto. Some of them couldn’t have got more make-up on without scaffolding. It was like somebody had flown over the city in one of those crop-duster biplanes spraying the stuff. Either that or the spawn of David Dickinson were everywhere. Clearly some of the population are still proud to be orange.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll be wanting to know where the sweet spot is for charity shops. Easy. Botanic Avenue was once Belfast’s Bohemian quarter when the likes of Bernard McLaverty and Seamus Heaney were at Queen’s but now it’s vastly improved by the presence of a War on Want bookshop, Marie Curie, Cancer Research and Save the Children. All were quite pricey. I nearly bought a pair of shoes in Save the Children but decided against it; they were a bit on the tight side. Besides, I can’t stand kids.
It strikes me that although finding the usual tourist destinations can be a doddle, cities can be strangely impenetrable when it comes to finding stuff to do in the evenings. A pub called the John Hewitt was listed as having live music every night but there was nothing going on. The only amusement on offer came from the graffiti on the burnt-out cinema across the road, which had apparently been squatted until recently. Next to a big capital A in a circle someone had painted the words ‘Make my Christmas and jail the arsonists.’ Some anarchists really do want it buttered both sides.
Nearly everyone in my room at the hostel was female. They were very quiet and considerate during the night, but took two hours to get ready in the morning. But around midnight there was the sound of furiously creaking bedsprings from the bunk above me. The tempo of creaking increased frantically. I thought I heard a small sigh, then the creaking stopped. Seconds passed, then a male Australian voice stage-whispered the words ‘Hold on a minute. We’re in the wrong fucking room!’
19th February 2008. Later at breakfast I overheard two friends from another room. One asked the other whether she’d slept okay. She said, ‘Yes thanks. At least that Australian couple weren’t doing it all night again.’
Halfway through my morning shower I realised that someone had thrown up in the shower tray. To add that little element of surprise they’d put the rubber shower mat over their leavings. At a guess, they’d been eating either spaghetti or noodles. I didn’t want to draw attention by asking for a second opinion in case I got blamed. There was no bin in the bathroom so I gritted my teeth and hoiked the offending matter out of the window. The window gave out onto a small enclosed back alley, so the chance of the karmic justice of the vomit landing on its producer was negligible. There was a group of twelve Australians staying at the hostel. They seemed to have known each other from childhood. I eavesdropped as two of them discussed another member of their group. He’d gone out and got so pissed that today he couldn’t actually remember anything about the evening, in fact couldn’t remember that he’d gone out at all. It seemed perverse to me to travel half way round the world only to spend all your time solely mixing with and talking to people you grew up with. Then to go out and get so trolleyed that you couldn’t remember anything seemed evidence of a strange lack of curiosity about the world.
20th February 2008. Derry is such an ordinary town. Subtract the Undertones and the history and what have you got? Loughborough, pretty much.
Back in Belfast in the evening I went to a gig. Now that I’ve stopped drinking alcohol I realise how much boredom there's involved in gig-going. Without the draught-excluder on the doors of perception there’s so much hanging about during changeovers, so many duff support bands, so much technical faffing about.
21st February 2008. Belfast has some of the worst buskers in the world. Most were accordion botherers, a few molested guitars. I’ve seen free jazz played live and God knows that’s some unlistenable piss, but these people were beyond random. Even a stopped clock’s right twice a day but this lot didn’t luck into melody once. I suspect it was a ploy to circumvent local byelaws on begging. I imagined the daytime buskers borrowing their instruments from traditional musicians who only needed them for evening sessions in pubs. I pictured the proper musician looking doubtful as he handed it over and saying, ‘Do you want me to show you how to string a few notes together?’ and the busker shaking his head and saying, ‘Nah, it’ll be fine.’