Category: Writing

Poetry and Pints

Ok, I’m stealing the very clever title for the gatherings held by the English Society at Queen’s – but I’m stealing it because it so aptly describes a recent night.

This week I went to a poetry reading. I’ve been to prose readings before, but up until a few months ago you’d have been as likely to find me at a poetry reading as a football match. (I have been to both you understand, but neither would be high on my list of top entertainments). We were there en masse from the MA course – partly because we’re all ‘writers’ now, and partly to support one of the readers – poet Paul Maddern, who teaches us He was reading, along with Alex Wylie.

So, there we all were, crammed into the Crescent Arts Centre auditorium. It was another reminder of the shift in orbit my life has taken. The gathering was like a Who’s Who of the literary world of the Seamus Heaney centre – writers, journalists, poets, lecturers – and students of all the above. Not a politician to be seen though.

I was there to show my support too, and not really expecting to be really engaged with the whole thing – but it was amazing. Alex Wylie is clearly one of the bright young stars of the Seamus Heaney centre. Listening to and reading poetry again, after so many years, has made me realise it’s not a test – you can just enjoy it on whatever level you access it. I would love to read Alex’s work though, as on first hearing I was sometimes running to catch up.

Paul read some of The Beachcomber’s Report from the collection of the same name and absolutely spirited me away. As I gushed to him afterwards: “It was like a novel!” High praise indeed from me, whereas one suspects probably not what most poets want to hear. But what I meant was,  that it took us on a journey – a journey that ranged from Donegal to London and in between – and it compelling and engaging – rather than leaving us wondering what it was all about. I loved it.

So, bouyed up by literary enthusiasm and cheap red wine, our ‘group’ – the young’uns, the Carrick Lovely, and me – sat and chatted and eventually drifted to a nearby bar. Now here’s the worst thing about being a student – everyone shuffles up to the bar and orders their own drink. Of course totally sensible when we’re all living on a shoestring, but it seems so anti-social! But, even so, one drink led to another, and the chat ebbed and flowed, until, perhaps unsurprisingly in such a diverse group, age came up. I actually thought the young’uns were in theri mid-twenties, they seemed so mature. But no, it transpired they were all 21. The Carrick Lovely was admitting to early thirties I think, and then came my turn. I think, by the time you’re in your mid-forties, age has become pretty irrelevant, so I blithely spilt the beans. Most gratifyingly, there were disbelieving looks all round. “We thought you were 35!” gasped one of the young’uns. I was delighted, until I thought about it and realised that at 21, you can’t really imagine age beyond 35!





A new beginning

As the excellent political analyst Alan In Belfast asks,  - does the world really need another blog? The answer to that is that it most definitely does need one like his, but it probably doesn’t need one like this quite so much!

However, that’s not going to stop me I’m afraid!

Having spent the last twenty years as a journalist, I have taken redundancy from my job with the BBC and made the mid-life-crisis like decision to return to university. But I’m not just studying any old course. Oh No. I am testing the life-long belief that all journalists have that they can write a novel, and I am studying towards an MA in Creative Writing.

This move has changed my life – and my buying habits – considerably. It’s an adventure, it’s a challenge, but it’s also something that I feel could decend very easily into cliche – a bit like my writing. However, although I am lucky enough to have chosen this, rather than to have had it thrust apon me, I suspect that the kinds of changes I am having to make will resonate with a lot of people. Whatever your circumstances I will bet that your life is not the same as it was two years ago. And increasingly I hear from people who still have the ability to make a choice, that they no longer want to live in the same way. So maybe these posts will have some relevance to others. I hope so.

But for now, let me entertain you with my experiences of being a student again! Although I am by no means the eldest in my classes, I am certainly among the oldest, and that includes the tutors. This was brought home to me forcibly when, during Freshers Week, I was handed  a free condom by a young woman advertising a night at a bar. Mutley, as my partner shall be known here, said, “Just the one? That’s not going to be much of a night…” But after I had chortled, it gave me a pang. If the university experience is about experimenting with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – where does that leave you when you’re happily settled in a relationship, and can no longer drink more than a couple of glasses of wine??

Well, watch this space…


Well, here we are in that horrible limbo of leaving, but not quite. It’s around 96 degrees today, so really too hot to do anything, but pack (which we’ve done) and wait (which we are doing) and try not to sweat too much.

I spent all of yesterday wracked with worry that I haven’t done enough with my time here, and panicking about what I’m going to do when I get back. I also really want to stay and live here properly, for a while anyway. But today I just want to go if we’re going – I want to be back in our house, and see the dog, and savour the cool of NI (that may not last for long!)

Looking on the positive side, Mutley and I made a list of things we won’t miss – the honking sirens on fire engines; the mosquitos which have bitten him to death; sweating so comprehensively that everything you’re wearing is damp.

But we’ve had such a great time – and met some great people. So this week we had a couple of really quite sad goodbyes, with the Russian beauty and her great friends, and with the Off The Sidewalk impressarios – who it’s been great to re-get-to-know, and everyone keeps saying, ‘you’ll be back’, so I guess we’ll see. So goodbye New York, for now….

They do love their signs in New York.

Many are telling you what, or more likely, what NOT to do; some are informing you of quite unenforceable laws; and many are issuing warnings – warning of an entirely obvious nature in some cases. There was a great one on the boardwalk at Coney Island which I should have snapped – something like “Warning! The seas here are subject to strong currents and sudden land drop-off which can contribute to drowning”.

Anyway, here are a few others I DID get pictures off.. oh yes, and the BBQ one? Well, where I come from pulling pork is something ENTIRELY different….

I hate being a tourist when I’m ‘abroad’ so I was delighted to come to New York to work, rather than just visit. But since I finished the job Mutley and I have had the most amazing time just drifting around, pleasing ourselves and looking at things! I know I’m on holiday because haven’t looked at a news bulletin or a website (although Mutley keeps having a quick online check on things at home, and then telling me smugly, ‘it’s cold and raining in Belfast’). We’ ve done so much – galleries, museums, boat trips, the Empire State Building – I think the pictures might say more…


Living in Harlem is a very different experience to living on the Upper East Side. While that may seem like a statement of the obvious, it’s a reminder of the ways neighbourhoods can change so quickly on this tiny island. Of course, coming from Belfast, that’s also no surprise to me – but in Northern Ireland, while the flags and kerbstones may change in an area, but the people look the same. Here, it is still a shock to suddenly find you are the only white person on the street, in the restaurant, in the carriage on the subway. We met up with the Queen of Manhattan the other night and during our conversations, she asked how it was up here. It was great, I told her, elaborating on the flat with its garden full of birdsong. ‘What about the people?’ she persisted. They’re fine too, I said. ‘But are they black?’ she asked. Yes, I told her laughing, but what’s wrong with that?

But of course, when you stand out so obviously in an area, you immediately feel more vulnerable. Our first night here we went out looking for a particular famous restaurant. When we finally found it it was closed, so we ended up walking looking for somewhere else. It was a hot busy evening and there were lots of people around. But straight away we got asked for money. And then we got approached with the ‘I’m not looking for money or anything but can you buy me a sandwich’, and this from a guy obviously on his way home from work. And that annoys me intensely – if you’re asking for money, then ask and I can make a choice whether to give you some or not, don’t dress it up. And needless to say, when Mutley did give him some money he was less than impressed with the amount.

The other big difference is I’ve found I get hassled on the street when I’ve been walking alone. Now, attracting comment from young men is something that happens so rarely at my age, that it’s hard to see it as anything but a compliment – although most of the time I’ve felt like laughing out loud. These huge young guys swagger past, look down on me and give me the once over. ‘Niiice!’ said one, who was probably young enough to be my son, and I wanted to stop him and say ‘Really??? Do you know old I am?’ Yesterday, I was bowling along, trying to get out of the intense heat, wearing a dress that my best friend would probably describe as frumpy, with my beaten up old trainers on, and sweating cobs, and a guy sauntered up and said ‘Hey beautiful, how’s YOUR day been?’ I had to smile at him, at the sheer ludicrousness of it all. But of course there’s another level to this, which is all about power, and which is a bit more sinister. If a woman, no matter what age or level or attractiveness, attracts comment on the street simply because she’s alone, that means she’s seen as fair game, just because she’s not accompanied by a man (because of course it hasn’t happened when I’m with Mutley). And that means that a woman here is pretty much defined by her relationship to a man. And that opens up a whole can of worms about respect.

But I’ve lived in enough areas that have been considered ‘dodgy’, to shy away from the stereotyping of a place. In Birmingham I lived in Balsall Health (once the red-light district) and in Sparkbrook (a mostly Asian area) and here, like there, the problems of the area are more about poverty than race. A quick search on Harlem brings up a ‘real estate’ site, which succinctly sums up the area ; “Despite radical changes in recent years, crime is still relatively high and the public schools could still use improvement.” The Harlem Tourism Now’ website is predictably more upbeat, but even it has a report about small business is crisis. The small businesses we have used, mostly the local shops and a couple of restaurants, have been doing ok – but the restaurants have been very expensive. Last night we had some cocktails and beers at the place nearest to the flat, and then got a couple of starters, and the bill came to $77, $89 with the tip – more than £50.

So would we come back and live here? I don’t know. What will probably force the gentrification of the area is the economics of living on Manhattan. This is one of the few areas where you can buy a house for under a $1 million, the real estate website tells me. And indeed, this lovely four-story brownstone we’re currently living in was bought by our gentle giant of a landlord as an investment, he told us.  But now he’s living here because it’s such a haven from the city, and I guess, considerably cheaper than renting in mid-town. And incidentally, he’s white, and so are all his other tenants. As more and more people move here, because they can find affordable accommodation here, the neighbourhood mix will change – although will the local people like that?


And speaking of trains, this weekend it’s been all change as far as my life here is concerned. Mutley is finally here! And it’s changed everything – for the better, I hasten to add! I had reached the point where I had had enough of all of it – the job, the weather, the city, the rush, because I was fed up of being here on my own. Everytime something great happened I wanted to tell him, everytime I saw something amazing I wanted to show him.

So on Sunday morning, there I was at JFK, in my new dress and heels, feeling a tad over-dressed compared to all the sneakers and shorts, and after what felt like hours of anticipation, the arrivals doors slid open and out he ambled. And suddenly everything made sense again.

So now we are esconced in this lovely little basement flat in an old brownstone, way up in Harlem. And the Queen of Manhattan is in Queens (!), having rented her whole flat out to someone else temporarily. It occurred to me that if I’d known she was prepared to do that, we could have stayed there – but it’s nice to be somewhere different. This flat is so full of character, (old and slightly shabby!) unlike her modern minimalist pad, but has this amazing back garden – walled and overlooked by trees, with comfortable beaten up chairs and a table with candles. The bedroom is at the back, so you wake up to look down the garden, deafened by the song of hundreds of little birds – instead of the wail of sirens that woke me on the Upper East Side - so it’s a totally new experience. (I just have to stop Steve calling me ‘bitch’ all the time…)

Of course I think the Queen was horrified that we were moving to Harlem - but knew me better than to say so! She may be an immigrant but she is a typical Manhattanite – there is NOWHERE but Manhattan to live, and NOWHERE really suitable except her area. Despite the stresses and strains of the last couple of weeks – her with all the bad luck she’s been having – me with my exhaustion and over-arching irritation with everything – we were still friends, and we had a great night out the night before I left. We went to the French bar with the jazz – now complete with a singer – and then onto what she called the Cigar Bar. When the smokeing ban came in, certain places could apply for a licence to still allow smoking on the premises. This place, not far from us but over near the park, was a richly dark downstairs basement bar. It’s lined with books, and has deep plush seats. The waitresses are dressed in deep red tight cocktail dresses, the clientelle is old and rich. It’s about as old money as you can get. But there was a real nostalgia to stepping down into the fug of smoke, especially the scented smoke of cigars.

We sat and watched the life around the bar and I had a $15 whisky – Laphroig I think. It was beautiful, as it always is, but seemed particularly appropriate to be drinking there. But there was an additional shock when we came to settle up – a $5 ‘cigar charge’! So we know who pays for the licence! Add the tip, and the tax, and one drink ended up costing $26 – or around £20. But I enjoyed seeing the place.

And the final change – today was my last day at work. After even just five weeks I have got into my little routine, got used to my desk, and wanted more time to have got to know my colleagues. But then I remembered how I felt when I still had weeks to go… and now we have 8 days of unsullied holiday to enjoy!


Since I moved from the bus to the subway I’ve missed watching the street go by, but there is a whole new show to watch. As the subway trains are so broad – no banging your head on the curved roof by the door like the tubes – there’s nearly always room enough to watch what’s going on. And now the weather has turned, the air conditioning is soooo welcome. So most journeys I make, I get to sit down, and watch the other customers – surepticiously of course, it’s not THAT different from the tube!

On Sunday I was on the half-busy train and a couple got on. They were the most good-looking pair in that carriage, and, having glanced around to check out the opposition, didn’t they know it. She, tall, slim, brown-skinned, skin-tight black skirt and vest, high platforms, and wild black hair; he, tall, slim, carefully ripped jeans and dishevelled dress shirt, a little too small so his washboard stomach was revealed every so often. For the five stops they were on the train they did this sort of performance, which just said: ‘look at us!’ They kissed, they swung around the metal poles, they fell into each others arms as the train jerked and swayed – it was so ostensibly casual, and so actually manufactured, I couldn’t help but smile.

This morning three teenage girls were gaggled together in the centre of the carriage – one white, one Spanish-looking, one black. They must have been 14 but still had that gangly coltish look. One had braces and glasses, but as trendy as you like - no longer are these things the sign of geekdomn! She had a huge rucksag on her back, practically the same size as she was, with three tin badges pinned on – this I remember from my 14-year-old days – but one of hers said ‘I heart vampires’ – a little reminder that this is 2011!

Tonight, I took the train back up to Harlem – a slightly different preposition from the well-mannered 7 train on the green line that I’ve been travelling on up to now, up and down the East side! As the express sped along, people sitting with closed eyes, tired after a long day, three 14 year old black boys came through to our carriage. With surprising volume, one commanded: ‘Listen up people, it’s SHOW time’, while another with perfect timing countered: ‘WHAT time is it?’, to a repy from the first: ‘ It’s SHOW time’. They then proceeded to put on a show, a show of rap and break-dancing – not that easy on a speeding wobbling train – for around three minutes, before collecting tips that anyone felt like handing out. I was the only person actually watching them, as far as I could see - I guess maybe they work that train quite often! But they collected a few dollars.

Another thing that tickles me about the subway are the announcements. On the tubes, in really old stations you sometimes still get the bark “MIND THE GAP, MIND THE GAP”. On the tourist routes you get the beautifully spoken Radio Four announcer-style woman telling you the name of the next station – the only person who can pronounce Marylebone correctly - “the next station is, Marlybone”, she says in her cut glass tones, “Please, mind the gap, between the train, and the station.”

Here, there is a terribly jolly sounding man. “The NEXT station is fordee-second street Graaand Central Station”, he proclaims, sounding like he’d really like a drum roll. Then, slightly more soberly: “Ladees and genlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead” – which is nice, but really, what else could be delaying us? And then back to the jolly tone – “Staand clear of the closing dooors pleeease”. Sometimes however, he turns all school-masterly and says “Congestion is NO excuse for inappropriate behaviour – if YOU think you have been the victim of an assult please contact a member of staff” – or something like that….


This week New York has bid farewell to two icons. Along with the rest of America, and probably the world, the city has seen the last Oprah Winfrey show. On Wednesday, the last of her daytime chatshows, one of the most watched tv programmes in America, was broadcast. There have been round 4,560 episodes of the programme, with memorable moments like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on her sofa declaring his love for Katie Holmes, and actress Ellen Degeneres coming out.

Back home, Oprah Winfrey’s show was one of those that was broadcast on those strange ‘other’ channels you have in your cable package, or on Channel 4! Never having been a fan of chatshows, or daytime tv, I can’t say I’ve ever watched a whole episode, but there’s no denying the persona she created.

Now that chapter in her life is over, there’s a lot of discussion about what’s she’s achieved. And of course as an African-American woman, a lot of those discussions revolve around whether she advanced the role of women - and black people in America, or whether she reduced both to stereotypes and soap opera. On the Access Hollywood website the headline is “Oprah Tells Fans to Channel Sadness into Hopeful Energy”  Whereas the New York Times is a little more intellectual in its analysis of her ‘cult’

Aside from Oprah, there was also a goodbye for a little piece of Upper East Side history. The Italian restaurant and bar Elaine’s, on 2nd Avenue between 88th and 89th Street, just by the busstop to work, in ‘my’ neighbourhood of Yorkville, closed its doors this week. You probably haven’t heard of it, I hadn’t, but if you take a look at the opening shots of Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan, you will see its woodpanelled walls. However, that was by no means its only claim to fame. Aparently Elaine, the motherly woman who ran it, who died last year, was confidente and protector to many a New York big name, including Woody Allen himself, who (it’s claimed) was introduced to Mia Farrow there Michael Caine, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol and many others.

According to the guidebook, (and the Queen of Manhattan), the food wasn’t actually all that great, and was definitely over-priced. And if you look in the comments at the end of that Vanity Fair piece you will see a cutting analysis of Elaine’s importance. But I had a notion to go there and see this piece of New York history on my doorstep. But I wasn’t quick enough!

The weather has finally cheered up. But in a twist that I didn’t expect here, it’s gone from cold and windy, to scorching! I spent the day in work looking out at blue skies above the skyscrapers, actually chilly in the air-conditioning, and then popping out in the heat to get iced-coffee and lunch. So after getting home and sorting the usual stuff out, I was determined to get out and enjoy the weather.

It was about 8pm, but still warm and light, and, because the skies were finally clear, the sunset was streaking the sky with pink and purple. I had realised that as the apartment block is a stone’s throw from the East River, there must be a way of walking along it. So I put on the ipod and set off. As I diced with death crossing the three-land racetrack that runs up the side of Manhattan, FDR Drive, I realised that on the other side of it is a lovely walkway, all along the riverside. It’s paved, there are seats and even chess tables and it was busy with dog-walkers, people with kids in pushchairs and joggers, and fishermen! And of course the views were amazing.


But it brought home again to me the differing attitudes to road traffic here. While I’d love to sit and look at these views, or sit and read a book, as people were, having the equivalent of the M6, or the Westlink, jammed with honking revving traffic, right behind somewhat spoilt it – for me anyway!

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