Belfast has had a long and complicated relationship with water, as anybody who has spent a summer here will tell you. It also has a rich maritime history, and because of this I find myself in the spitting June rain in the company of several confused Spanish people. All for the love of literature.
Three new trails have been specially commissioned for 'Poets and Players, Dockers and Dreamers: A Summertime in Belfast', by Belfast City Council. They are the Lagan Maritime, Titanic and City of Merchants trails.
Each of these features idiosyncratic walking tours by Northern Irish writers detailing the surprising heritage of the city, and today we are ably shepherded by Lee Lavis, Heritage & Education Officer of the Lagan Legacy, and John Campbell, the Docker’s poet, who has written a new poem, 'A Dockside Daydream', especially for the walk.
It’s a short route from the Belfast Barge via the Harbour Office and finally on into Sailorstown, but it’s one that is larded with fascinating detail. A potted and plotted history from Lavis and splashes of local colour from Campbell, whose family lived in the area for 200 years.
When I mentioned to friends I was going to Sailorstown, there were nudges and sniggers, but there were no Gaultierian stevedores in matelot-shirts and swinging bell-bottoms in these stories. These are classic tales of working-class deprivation and aristocratic callousness.
From the proto-city being granted the building of a small quay by James I in 1613, the Belfast people have had to struggle: against natural obstacles, the Lagan’s tides, its unhelpful shape and treacherous low-tide mud-flats, and against commercial ones: the self-interested greed of the local landowners, for instance. As Lavis ruefully conclude, at the end of the first part of the tour, it’s a wonder Belfast was ever built at all.
The detail is fascinating. When Queen Victoria arrived in 1888 to bestow the title of 'city' on Belfast, the harbour commissioners had no fancy uniforms to wear, so they went out and got the matching blue cashmere waistcoats they still wear to this day. Queen Victoria only stayed for two hours but still managed to get an island renamed in her honour.
The tour really comes into its own when Campbell regales us with stories of his youth and the people that used to live in the area, now mostly dispersed after the building of the fly-over in the early 1970s, forcing thousands from their homes.
As he reads one poem, '45 Earl Street', a meditation on returning to his family home just before its demolition, there is real anger in Campbell's voice that matches the crashing rhythm of the poetry, the way the repeated internal rhymes clash; like a wrecking ball punching through the stuff of people’s lives.
He’s happier reciting 'The Sportsman’s Arms', named for one of the many shut up pubs in the area, pubs that no longer have enough community to stay a local, just as St Joseph’s Church has closed its doors; neither place has the necessary congregation.
This is another poem of loss, with its mordant refrain of 'Barney’s closing the door' banged in at the end of each verse like the nail in the coffin of this once bustling, cosmopolitan place.
It’s in The Docker’s Bar, the last station on our journey and an astonishing building – a warren of little Tyrolean cubby-holes – over a pint of Guinness that Campbell reads 'A Dockside Daydream'. And it is a fine distillation of the experiences he has shared with us, filling the silence of these now empty streets and abandoned buildings with an echo of the lives once lived here.
The Dockside, as it stands, is almost unrecognisable as the same place that thousands of people lived and worked in, where the Luftwaffe strafed the docks, and men stood in 'schooling pens', waiting to be picked for work, wondering if they would eat that week. That is why tours like this, and people like John Campbell, are so important for this city: they are a link to a past that is no longer visible.
Poets and Players, Dockers and Dreamers runs in Belfast until August 26.