New Book Tours Weird Belfast
Reggie Chamberlain-King's new book, published by Blackstaff Press, is chock-a-block with odd adverts, sensational songs and all manner of ghosts
I’m in the Park Avenue Hotel in Belfast nursing a coffee (and a sprained wrist) and waiting on Reggie Chamberlain-King, author of Weird Belfast, subtitled a 'miscellany, almanack and companion' to peculiar goings on in this fair city.
It is a curious compendium, chock-a-block with odd adverts, sensational songs and all manner of ghosts, witches, murderers and 'resplendent ivory-like teeth'. One mystery that does need solving from the very outset, however, is why we’re meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel.
'The hotel is on Park Avenue,' Chamberlain-King tells me on arrival. He is dressed as a benign, old school time lord, a satchel thrown over one shoulder – I am rapt from the off. 'It used to be a row of terraced houses, one of which, number six, was home to Dr William Jackson Crawford, a New Zealand émigré and professor emeritus at Queen's University.
'He was also a professor of mechanics at Belfast Municipal College and he spent four years of his life working with the Goligher circle. The Golighers were a Presbyterian family living in Tanner Street just behind Queen's University and they used to conduct séances in their house a couple of times a week.
'They’d take no money. They did it from a perspective of Christian Charity. Crawford experimented on them several days a week for four years, completely of the mind that this was a materiel phenomenon that he could measure.
'Being a mechanic, his hypothesis was that there must be an ectoplasmic cantilever, a rod of ectoplasm, that was coming from the medium, Kathleen Goligher’s "organ of generation", and it was that which would move the table. He even got her to wear special pants. And then he lost his mind. He disappeared and was found on the lawn of a girl’s school in Bangor having taken cyanide.'
There is a matter-of-fact quality to the strangeness of these stories that runs through the book, perhaps as a consequence of the stories being removed from context and left to their own devices. Chamberlain-King demurs, sipping on his green tea.
'In a sense these are oddities, just weird things that happened. But there is also the sense in that the people of the time dealt with them. They presented them in a realistic way. They were part of life, normal. I looked at it, initially, from more of a psychogeographical angle, which was interesting as a way of drawing all sorts of things together and making connections. But ultimately it felt as if we were giving the oddities short shrift.'
Weird Belfast is not, then, about the main narrative history of Belfast, it is very much about these oddities. The introduction contains a near apology for the book that follows, but that doesn’t mean that what’s recorded inside isn’t fascinating in its own right and doesn’t deserve to be recorded.
For instance, I am amazed to discover that there were four Jack the Ripper suspects at large in Belfast in 1888, one of whom, according to Chamberlain-King, 'wore two hats and described himself as a comedian'. Another Ripper suspect, John Foster, is described by the Belfast Telegraph in the book as having hair that was 'flaxen, crispy and hedgehog-like'. Clearly that august organ has gone downhill in the last hundred odd years!
'I found the Ripper stuff fascinating,' Chamberlain-King continues, 'because of the way Belfast became ensnared in it, but also because the way in which it became ensnared is so tangential and sort of insignificant. But that’s sort of the beauty of it: the balancing act of there always having to be a local angle in the press.
'But this the late Victorian period when Belfast was a leading industrial city, together with the fact of mass emigration, so there was always an 'Irish Despatches' column in any Australian, American or Canadian newspaper. That’s why there is a lot of stuff in the book from around the world with these peculiar Belfast-centric stories.'
Chamberlain-King’s day job, as sound effects technician for Wireless Mystery Theatre, sees him dealing with all manner of spooky going’s on. Recently the troupe have performed Green Tea by Sheridan le Fanu, Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and even an 'original 1940s' version of Ghostbusters for the Belfast Comedy Festival. Has Chamberlain-King always collected unusual stories?
'My grandfather was from the Markets [area of Belfast], and used to dandle me on his knee and tell me all these stories of legendary Belfast hard men. Buck Alec, people who would have a lion and cave your skull in with a flagstone. But in terms of local colour, in terms of the personal footnotes, there is a lot. There’s a mysterious ghostly wind that runs down Raphael Street, for instance.'
Quite how a ghostly wind manifests itself – 'It was an ill wind and not of this earth!' – we may never know. With a gleam in his eyes, Chamberlain-King warms to his theme.
'My love of the city, which is unerring, is a complete and utter devotion,' he declares. 'The truth and falsity of these legends is completely irrelevant. My own house has a history. I live in [the late poet] John Hewitt’s old house and there have been endless incidents of haunting. We were warned off by a neighbour with the words, “Don’t worry – he doesn’t know he’s dead!” which was supposed to be reassuring, but oddly it does not reassure.'
And for those potential readers averse to superstition who are, as yet, undecided about reading Weird Belfast, Chamberlain-King has these choice words:
'I accept the weird stuff that happens to people and I think it’s an important part of the fabric of life. You need things that are atypical. Your life, and indeed the life of a city, has to have these things that don’t sit well, that need to be explained and that don’t need to be explained.'
Weird Belfast is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.