One City One Book

Composer Philip Hammond struggles to relate as Glenn Patterson spins vinyl from the Good Vibrations soundtrack

I’m at the Ulster Hall, early for a change, and I hear strains of Verdi’s 'Requiem' as the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and Derry~Londonderry’s Codetta rehearse with the Ulster Orchestra for performances on the next two nights.

It’s a surreal aural experience as I leave the main hall and head into the minor hall, because now I’m listening to what sounds to me like 1960s punk music. I’m here for an event in which authors Lucy Caldwell and Glenn Patterson will discuss the Terri Hooley biopic, Good Vibrations, and play some of their favourite music from the era.

The reading come talk come gig is as part of the One City One Book Belfast reading initiative, organised by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Alas, Caldwell hasn’t shown – she’s in England receiving yet another award for her literary brilliance, and so Patterson is left holding the fort. Should I stay or should I go? The question is pertinent in all sorts of ways, as I find out.

The surrealism is exaggerated by the beat on the turntable, which sets the scene for Patterson’s revelatory ramblings about Good Vibrations, which he co-scripted with Colin Carberry. I haven’t watched the film, and uncomfortably I begin to wonder if I’ll understand anything to come.

Patterson’s flow of consciousness revolves around the film’s music soundtrack, which is punk / rock-based in the main (that and the central figure of Terri Hooley). Those of a certain age and Belfast-born will know all about the context and the content – all except me, despite the fact that I am of a certain age and natal locality. Paradoxically, here I feel I am a fish out of water.

The 1960s and 70s, the Undertones and The Outcasts – yes, I remember them to an extent, but Rudi, Protex and the Clash, the Shangri Las, Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls? The Roof Racks?

In the background, Verdi’s clashing 'Dies Irae' ominously invades my consciousness while close up, and pitched at variable volumes, Patterson plays his vinyls, perhaps not always with a technical proficiency but with an enthusiasm that is infectious.

No, not musically but intellectually, physically, amusingly, entertainingly, his performance demands my attention, and draws it away from the safe world of judgement day and into the unknown dark days of Belfast and the world of the punk bands.

How can anyone be interested in these limited harmonies, these vocal monstrosities, these undistinguished and indistinguishable lyrics? The penny drops when Patterson explains simply and powerfully that none of that really mattered to the teenage followers of the popular cults of their times.

The kids only wanted to bash out something to express what they felt or wanted to feel or could identify with. Educated finesse wasn’t part of their language – it was raw emotion, rough energy, unfettered by convention and responsive only to the immediate.

I missed it all. But tonight I’m glad to have relived some of it vicariously through Glenn Patterson’s amazing verbal mosaic and his ability to tell a story. The music I can still do without.

One City One Book Belfast continues until May 31. View the full programme of events.