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SWB on Soul-Searching and Sausages

It’s weird isn’t it, the things that can catch you unawares and upset your balance. Last week it was a surfeit of sausages which caught me off-guard. I’d been down seeing the writer Donal Ryan as part of the Out to Lunch Festival, at which one is treated to a light bite while enjoying literary stimulation. A fine raconteur is Donal Ryan, though I have yet to forgive him for penning ‘The Thing About December’ and the character Johnsey, a good and innocent sort of a cratur who remains lodged in my heart. I still get teary when I think about him despite reading the book some time ago.

Anyway, I spied a rake of sausages languishing in a tray at the end, and asked a kindly woman if I could take some home for the dog. She told me to take as many as I liked, so I wrapped some up in foil and told her the dog would be delighted.

And delighted she was too, with her tasty morsel, but the cats looked on in disgust, so I had to plate some up for them as well, in appropriate cat-sized chunks. Slovenly creature that I am though, I left them on the counter while I scarpered upstairs, having done a yoga class prior to the reading, and it, coupled with my heightened emotional state hearing about wee Johnsey again, that I needed a lie down.

MUM! I heard the Older Child yell, rousing me from my slumber.

Down I came to find her filled with opprobrium. ‘I came into the kitchen and stood on a sausage,’ she said indignantly, ‘and I was pulling it off my sock when the dog came in, and ATE IT.’

As she puffed out her cheeks in a show of wanting to vomit, I spied remnants of foil on the floor and surmised that an opportunistic cat had deemed her portion of sausage inadequate, and taken matters into her own paws by helping herself. Later we found more sausage under a chair, which suggested the cat had batted what was left around the floor. (We don’t usually just leave half-eaten pork products on the carpet. Honestly.)

This sausage business  reminded me of sitting in ‘We Are Vertigo’ in November after the bastard transfer tests, chatting with other mums about the kids growing up so fast and how soft play areas would soon be a distant memory. ‘Phew,’ I said, ‘ghastly places.’

‘It’s the smell of sweat mingled with disinfectant that turns me,’ opined one mum, wrinkling her nose. (Cue vigorous nodding from the rest of us.) ‘And there’s always a child with half a chicken nugget stuck to their sock,’ said another. But then we went quiet, thinking how we’d miss seeing our children this way; faces red from the exertion of swinging and sliding and climbing out of the ball-pit before the kid who looks old enough to buy a carry-out lands on their head as he flies off the freefall.

And I thought again of this on Saturday, when the Older Child and I walked the dog. My quads were burning from a run, and I was clad in baggy track bottoms and a puffy jacket. It didn’t make for a flattering silhouette. Impatient, she strode ahead, legs long and lean in leggings, while I shuffled behind, tugging the dog as she stopped to sniff every flipping lamp-post.

And I know the Child’s only twelve, but the image seemed to echo the future and Heaney’s words from Follower popped into my head: ‘But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/ Behind me, and will not go away.’

Never mind The Thing About December, January does it to me every time; the reality of life too keenly felt after the froufrou of Christmas, and I turn to introspection and self-scrutiny. And all this prompted by a sausage.

 

 

 

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SWB on the art of positive thinking

When it comes to optimism, and looking on the bright side, I’d be the least likely candidate to spring to mind, wouldn’t you think? But this morning I was tasked with chatting to Frank on U105 about channelling positivity, of all things. I was an odd choice, given that I write ‘The Sour Wee Blog,’ but paradoxically, it’s exactly because of this that I was asked me to contribute, because being aware of my mindset, I actively seek out ways to cope when all seems bleak. Indeed, it’s my only defence to keep the proverbial ‘Black Dog’ from the door, and it would be easy, wouldn’t it, to fall into a collective gloom as we begin a New Year.

Over Christmas, the joy of the season was so much at odds with the atrocities reported daily on the news, that I felt a jarring sense of doom and unease. But by allowing myself to rest up a bit and read books by the fire, I felt myself replenished, and sufficiently energized enough to do parkrun and yoga classes, and as such, my mood lifted a little. And now, as work beckons and it’s time to take down the tree and stash away the glittery outfits for another year, I find myself clinging to the magic, and want to keep the glowing embers aflame. In Sweden it’s the custom to keep the lights on until the 13th January, and I don’t begrudge our Scandi neighbours a thing, because they’ve a long auld winter to plough through. Keep the decorations up for a while, if that’s what you want.! While we plan to take our tree to Kinedale Donkey Sanctuary on Saturday, LSB won’t be clambering up to remove the outdoor lights for at least another week.

 

Small wins are a must for me, whether it’s keeping up my streak on Duolingo, making dinner from scratch or putting the cork back in the bottle of wine to avoid a hangover, (mornings are tough enough in winter.) It’s taking time to drink tea from a favourite cup with a homemade truffle, or meeting a pal for a latte. Having things to look forward to is crucial, so I’m making plans for a weekend away with friends, and in November I thought ahead and planted a rake of tulips for some spring blooms. These are all small things, but added together they become significant.

When the news is very grim indeed, one could easily fall into a pit of despair. But it’s not terribly helpful, is it? Running about with a face like a DUP-er at their first same sex wedding isn’t going to change anything, other than irritate the life out of those around me. LSB got me on to the Stoics a while ago, and my main take-away was trying not to excessively worry about things I can’t control. I’ve agonised over the news in the past, so much so that I was rendered unable to deal with day to day life. No good came from my angst, and it certainly didn’t make me any more productive.

 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t tune into the news, but I’m not doom scrolling or getting into debates on Facebook or X. Truly, that way madness lies. Rather I’m trying to focus the inspirational stuff. Might I recommend this piece of joy by Anita Chauduri in the Guardian, and Myke Bartlett on the Stoics. And finally, I felt incredibly humbled to read an article about the Ukrainian film-maker and war reporter Msytlav Chernov, whose film ’20 days in Mauripol’ was released in October. Despite documenting the tragedies which unfolded when the Russians relentlessly pounded the city with bombs, he kept working in a place from which most people have fled. And this is what stuck with me; he said that no matter what they endured, no one was alone, there was always someone there, offering support. He concluded, ‘I find that incredibly hopeful.’ Well. If I can’t shake myself out of a stupor then, it’s a pretty poor state of affairs. Chins up everyone!

 

 

 

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SWB isn’t one for retail therapy..

I need to listen to my own advice. But I didn’t, and I went to the shops and it was fecking awful. I know, I know.  I’m all about my forays to charity shops; about experiences instead of material goods, and home-made truffles instead of a box of Miniature Heroes, but I’m also a realist. Sometimes, you have to buy knickers and socks and a new laundry basket from TK Maxx because your children have made a sleigh of your old one, by attaching a dressing-gown belt to the handle and tugging their sibling and a multitude of stuffed animals about. Said laundry basket is now buggered and a jagged edge threatens to take the hand off you every time you look at it.

Anyhoo, the Mothership, and I hoofed it to Bloomfield Shopping Centre, which bears little resemblance from how I remember it in the nineties. The M&S was so big and cavernous that we found ourselves wandering around gormlessly like Father Ted when he got trapped in the lingerie section. It was like a maze, particularly since the aisles were blocked by folk with trollies full of food.  A law should be passed, stating firmly that trollies don’t belong, EVER, in the clothes section, because the aisles are too narrow to accommodate them and consequently all movement is reduced to a standstill. Very irksome, when all you want is to grab your size 12 full briefs and find the nearest exit.

But it was Next which committed the greatest faux-pas, by cranking up the in-store muzak to ‘wreck the nerves entirely’ level. Dropping the latest beats from DJ ‘Deck-the-Halls-and-Rob-da-Manger,’ it created a frenetic atmosphere with a beat so pounding and intrusive it rendered any considered shopping an impossibility. I lost all ability to make a decision, and before I knew it I’d sought out a shop assistant. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘but would you mind finding your manager, and making the case that this is a shop, not a night club, and that I can’t concentrate with that din?’ Her smile faded, but she diligently trotted off. But the music wasn’t turned down, or at least not in the three minutes I lasted before seeking sanctuary outside. The west wind blasted a wet drizzle into our faces but it was still better than the alternative. ‘That was horrible,’ I said to the Mothership, who agreed that indeed it was.

Later I told LSB the craic. ‘The thing is,’ he said, as he tucked into a Tunnock, ‘they don’t really want you there. You’re not the right demographic.’

‘What the actual f**k?’ sez I. ‘Not the right demographic? I’m their ONLY demographic!’ Always quick with a retort, he piped up, ‘Their perceived demographic. They make the mistake of thinking they’re trendy.’

He’s right, isn’t he, auld LSB. Who else do you think shops in Next only women in their forties, picking up bland office wear or choosing stuff for their kids or the ubiquitous baby gift?’

I was chatting with my friend over brunch earlier, and asked if she felt the same about shopping these days. ‘Of course I do! she replied. Her pet-peeve is stores with lighting so subdued that you have to employ the torch on your phone for a better look. Once she had to explain to a store detective at Hollister that she wasn’t stealing a denim jacket, she just wanted to see it in the daylight, to see whether it was black or navy. Turned out it was dark green.

So is shopping just for the young’uns? Is internet shopping the future and does it herald the end of the high street and a as a result a trip out with your mum ? I don’t know. All I know is that my wee wrecked head can’t deal with the reality of actual forays these days.

 

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SWB’s Christmas Gift Guide

You know my mantra by now everyone- don’t go buying more stuff you don’t need, for yourself or anyone else! We have been dramatically scaling back on gifts of late, but this doesn’t mean we can’t still  spoil ourselves.

We’re buying less but buying better, trying to support local businesses and seeking out experiences to make the New Year brighter.

With that in mind, I am excited to say that some of my FAVOURITE places are offering a discount if you buy online.

Deja Vu on the Lisburn are kindly offering a 10% discount up until December 22nd, if you are looking a gift or seeking a ‘new to you’ outfit for the festive season. For those of you unfamiliar with the shop, Ruth sells excellent quality second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories, many of which are designer brands. Shopping here is one of my greatest pleasures, as to me, few other stores can compete for service and I always find something surprising and original on the rails. Use HELEN10 to avail of the discount online or you can mention me in-store.

Little Love NI is an Etsy shop run by my friend Emma, who is a member of my Shared Threads Group. Emma sews a range of items such as purses, blankets and festive decorations, all exquisitely finished and beautifully packaged. She uses Liberty fabrics and the vibe is cosy, classy and jam-packed with love. Emma is a self-confessed eco-nut and LOVES reusable products, so look no further for pretty snack and sandwich bags which can be used time and time again. Use the code HELEN10 to receive a 10% discount from her Etsy Shop. Offer only available though until DEC 10th when her online store closes for Christmas.

Now on to treatments and experiences…

Betty’s Place is my go-to if I want a massage. My preferred way of doing it is to book in later in the day so I can come home, slip straight into pjs, zen out and channel my inner sloth. Betty works intuitively with your body to zone in to wherever she deems needs it most. I find a session particularly good after a running event, as she incorporates stretching into her treatments which are a balm for my hips when they feel stiff and clunky. Between January and March you can enjoy a relaxing shiatsu massage, with floor work and stretches with a 20% discount using HELEN20.

Now listen up -this one is a game changer if you’re a woman of a certain age. Recently I booked three treatments with  Jo-Anne Colgan in Rosetta Acupuncture Clinic for trigger point and acupuncture. Now, some folk immediately dismiss acupuncture because they hate needles, but these aren’t needles as you know them, I would say filaments, less of a prick more of a tickle. Plus, once Jo-Anne popped them in, I wasn’t even aware of them, especially as I was lying in a warm room, listening to Tibetan music under a blanket. Bliss. She also worked on my troublesome neck and shoulders, and brought immediate relief. I’ve been telling all my friends to go, because she definitely performed some sorcery with my hormones. Jo-Anne is an anaesthetist, so the woman knows her way around a needle. The discount code HELEN10 entitles you to a 10% discount, and this also applies to E-gifts.

And finally, who doesn’t love a donkey at Christmas? (Or anytime?) Kindale Donkeys in Ballynahinch has brought us JOY over the years. The girls don’t feel it’s a holiday without a trip to see their mates down at the farm. And it’s not just for the littl’uns either, check out their page to see everything they offer. Use the code, (you’ve guessed it by now), HELEN10 for a 10% discount on any activities booked in December.

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SWB gives her diet a shake-up

One gloomy day last year I was driving home from the Ards Peninsula, when I was stricken by such a hunger that I pulled into the McDonald’s in Newtownards. At the drive-thru I was ordered hot chocolate and a cheeseburger and when I heard a familiar voice on Radio Four. It belonged to my friend, Professor Louise Mallinder, renowned for her work on Amnesty and International Law. They say that comparison is the thief of joy, and so indeed it was, as I sat there, chowing down ultra-processed meat and plastic-y cheese while listening to Louise articulate the challenges to the Good Friday Agreement posed by Brexit. (Incidentally, Louise hasn’t touched meat since childhood.) ‘That’s my friend, being clever,’ I thought. ‘And here’s me not even managing to feed myself properly.’

Note to self: you can’t have hardly any breakfast, a custard cream for break and a portion of chips from the school canteen and expect to feel replete (or even human.)

I should know better. At school I won the prize for A-Level Home Economics (HE). This was a big silver teapot, which my teacher asked if I could ‘accidentally’ knock off the mantlepiece, so they would have to find a decent cup instead. HE, you see, was not just about making tea, as the teapot implied. No, at A-level we learnt about the chemical composition of carbs, proteins and fat molecules; we learnt that lack of Vit C leads to scurvy and Vit D leads to rickets. Why did I then think that proteins were mainly the reserve of gym bunnies or body builders?

I assumed, because I eat meat, cheese, and even the odd yogurt, that I was getting enough. I was wrong. Peri-menopausal women should be boosting their intake to 120g a day AT LEAST, so that’s 40g roughly per meal.

I’ve consulted Google to make you all a handy table here so you too can consider your own intake:

2 eggs 12g
One chicken thigh 13.5g
One chicken breast 54g
Halloumi (100g, roughly half a pack) 21g
Normal pot of yogurt 4.5g
2 slices of ham 9.3g

It was Dr Jo-Anne Colgan who put me right about all of this. I visited her Rosetta Clinic for acupuncture, and in our initial consultation I told her how listless and lethargic I often felt. After three sessions and taking on board her dietary advice, I have notably  more energy, am much less creaky and DEFINITELY less cranky as a result. Jo-Anne’s specific areas of interest are matters relating to menopause and supporting busy women who are juggling work, family, friends and social life, perhaps neglecting their own needs along the way.

She advised me that ladies of a certain age need to be sprinkling flaxseed and pecans on their porridge, bulking up their veg curries with lentils and paneer, and eating a high protein yogurt with their lunches. (I can recommend pots of Arla dessert which pack a mighty 20g and are available in Sainsburys. Lidl also do a good selection.) If you’re struggling to reach your daily target you can buy a packet of whey in Holland and Barrett and whizz some into a smoothie.(I can heartily recommend Soul Food on the Ormeau Road if you fancy a veggie grill with eggs and halloumi for a high-protein fix.) Green peas and spinach have the highest proportion of protein according to this site, and I was delighted to read this because I love both and they are super quick to prepare.

So as the festive season approaches, might I suggest upping your protein to steel yourself for the busyness ahead. You probably all have a lot more wit than I do, but I often rely  heavily on the resuscitating properties of coffee and Kitkats. I never manage to lose any weight, because I still consume empty calories. It’s not a good way to live, and I’m glad I spoke to Jo-Anne and have made some changes. Hopefully I won’t feel so starved that I have to resort to a crappy McDonalds for sustenance any time soon.

 

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SWB on the Trouble with Sitting

It’s just one of those miserable facts that sitting down, along with most other things which give us pleasure, is bad for us.  When I’m teaching, despite my best efforts, I can spend quite a bit of time behind a desk. On days when I write, (which means trying to articulate my thoughts but mostly hovering my forefinger over the delete button) I’m aware I can spend a long time on my backside. But now, to add insult to injury, I find that all this sitting will be a contributing factor to early death. Life’s a laugh a minute these days, isn’t it?

So what CAN you do to boost the step count when you want to transition from desk to sofa, bypassing a jog or the gym?

This is where you need a CHEAT SHEET, consisting of a few ideas for a quick energy-burning fix.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I find dancing helps. This can also be a mood booster – ask Alexa for your tune of choice then throw some serious shapes for three minutes. Lately I’ve enjoyed getting my groove on to Vampire by Olivia Rodrigo. This activity can be prolonged by asking a child to spouse to choose a song too. What fun and hijinks.

Move with Ash is an influencer I follow, who shows that less is more, if we incorporate more movement into our daily lives. I thought of her recently while standing in a queue in Dunnes buying leggings for my child. I hadn’t cooled down after a (short) run so took the opportunity to stretch my quads, by standing on one leg. Granted, I got a few funny looks, but I did it anyway.

If I’m feeling fraught, I quite like to be soothed and mollycoddled, especially after a day’s work. For this reason I fire up a YouTube and do a short video by Brett Larkin and Yoga with Adriene. You won’t necessarily increase your step count, but I can’t emphasise enough how good this stretching feels after a day hunched over a computer.

The French call it ‘Les cent petits pas’ which translates as ‘the hundred small steps’ and in a nutshell, means taking the stairs instead of the escalator or walking to the shops instead of jumping in the car. On Friday I went to the Ulster Museum to see the Royal Academy Of Art exhibition and I thought of this as I climbed the stairs up to the fourth floor. It was worth every step.

Should you want to go for the nuclear option, to reduce your sedentary time, might I suggest getting a dog? In the evenings, I do LOVE a good bit of sofa-time and the dog is my trusty companion in this activity. But, before that, I have to walk her. Upon coming home from work, the last thing I want to do if I’m honest is start trudging up and down the hill where we reside. But, once I’m out and taking the air, I find I don’t mind quite so much, especially with my earphones in, listening to BBC Sounds. Might I recommend some amazing shows and podcasts for your delectation:

Histories Secret Heroes with Helena Bonham-Carter,

Lifechanging with Dr Sian Williams,

People Who Knew Me with Rosamunde Pike

It’s sadly a given that we all have to fit in exercise somehow, but it needn’t be too painful with any of the above suggestions. Do share any of your strategies with me about how to keep fit when you’re time poor. (Or just can’t be arsed.)

 

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SWB on music and nostalgia

Four tickets. Four tickets for Bruce Springsteen, secured this morning, I can’t believe it. Our friends are taking their son, and so we thought we’d bring our girls along, though ingrates as they are, they weren’t impressed. ‘Do we have to go?’ was the reaction of the Small Child. ‘I’m only coming if we can stay in a tent.’ It’s not a festival,’ I explained, just a concert, on the Boucher Road. Her face fell again, (meanwhile, LSB started googling Glastonbury.)

I stressed the importance of the gig, telling them that they might appreciate good music, as it was for me, an awareness that peaked around thirteen when I stopped listening solely to Kylie Minogue and anything related to Neighbours.

It’s been a weekend bathed in nostalgia, kicking off on Friday when we ate our Nico’s pizza watching 90’s Top of the Pops, and on came Joshua Kadison* soulfully playing ‘Jesse’ on his piano. I used to LOVE that tune, and it also made me really want a cat, specifically so I could call it Moses. I was tempted to change my hamster’s name to Moses, but tiny and fawn coloured, he was more Bambi than commanding Old Testament figure. Funny, but listening to ‘Jesse’ now, the character Liz Danes, sister of Luke in the Gilmore Girls, immediately springs to mind. ‘A carried away cratur,’ The Mothership would say.

As I zoomed around doing errands on Saturday lunchtime, I caught a snippet of ‘Storytelling’ on Radio Ulster, and the writer Tara McEvoy reminiscing on the music which influenced her most as a teen; Nirvana, The Velvet Underground, and Ash, her first ever concert, to which she went with her dad in Botanic Gardens, and made all the sweeter since they both hailed from Downpatrick.

My first concert was to see UB40 in the Kings Hall in 94, closely followed by The Beautiful South in the Ulster Hall. I recall commenting to my friend (somewhat pompously,) ‘that I felt the acoustics were better in the more intimate venue.’ My lasting impression about these gigs was of one of underwhelm though, because the audience just ‘swayed about’ and I’d been watching My So-Called Life and wanted to go to concerts where you could really let loose. Fortunately, on the odd weekend in Bangor, we could go to see local groups , sixth-formers from the boys’ grammar school, who belted out covers of REM, the Manics and Guns n’Roses.  I was the one at the front, giving it stacks as I bopped around, head-banging and loving every sweat-soaked second of it. This was release; emancipation from teenage angst of a very particular brand in Northern Ireland. Despite my leanings towards evangelical Christianity, the hell fire and brimstone preachers still put the fear of God into me, and the soundtrack on the news was one of never-ending brutality. I was a worry-wart anyway, so this was undiluted relief, giddiness and transcendence from the everyday which looking back, I deem was not only welcome but essential.

Later on last Saturday, I took a collection of my old singles into Timeslip Records on Botanic Avenue. It was time to say goodbye to ‘Everything I do’, by Bryan Adams, ‘Suddenly’ by Angry Anderson and (Dear God) ‘When You Come Back to me’ by Jason Donavan. ‘That’ll be hard to shift,’ surmised the owner. ‘I’ll give you a fiver for the lot.’ I took it, only too pleased to get rid, and pocketed it to spend at my next stop, No Alibis to buy a book. (‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson, if you’re interested.) But before I left, I took in the scent  of second-hand vinyl. Dominating the wall was a poster of Kurt Cobain, and a blow up of the ticket for the gig in the Kings Hall. Imagine, I thought, hearing ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ live, with its signature discordant riff in all its raw elemental angst.  I glimpsed a poster for ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ on the stairs on the way out and immediately regretted my decision not to see Guns n’Roses when they played Dublin in 2022. Despite the state of him, aul Axl Rose can still hold a tune. Looking round the shop, I could have been sixteen again, DM clad in my tie-dye skirt from Fresh Garbage, as my brother and his friends played ‘Master of Puppets’ by Megadeth and ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica in our front room of our house on the Esplanade in Ballyholme.

On Botanic I met my old friend Karen who is over visiting from New Zealand. She and I used to go dancing as teenagers in Bangor, upstairs in Wolsey’s and The Windsor and later on took our moves to Crete, and Santorini, and to later still to the rum-soaked town of Chorini in the Caribbean. We reclined in a snug little booth in Maggie May’s, where the grungy music continued in the background and I told her how working there in 1998 had continued my musical education, as fellow waiting staff  introduced me to their choice of genres. It was a big YES from me to the Brit Pop fan who brought his Stone Roses and Primal Scream CDs into work, and a massive NO for the Ozzie girl who championed screechy-thumpy-ear-drum perforating shite from Berlin. ‘This is art,’ she would say, with something akin to reverence, in response to my anguished pleas to turn it the hell off.

One Saturday in August we had Cool FM on in the background, and suddenly the news of the Omagh bomb broke, just after the lunch-time rush, and we had to carry on, wracked with  disbelief, because what else could we do, except keep serving the all-day fry and burgers and chips, watching as customers took their seats in stunned silence and pointed hazily at the menu.

So many memories, nostalgia and growing-pains and new beginnings all meshed together, and digested over hot chocolate and whipped cream, with marshmallows crispy from a new blow torch our server was really keen to tell us about.  This is life, in all its beauty and absurdity, but distilled in a moment, of being with a friend who returns home to find a Northern Ireland, in many ways changed, but in others,  still unstintingly familiar. But given present world affairs, how lucky we are that we can come together, dip into the same pool of recollections, and for a moment be teens again, transported elsewhere, and can ask ourselves, What’s going on?

And while on the topic of Northern Ireland, and peace and music, I can’t not mention the old Chieftan of Irish Rock himself, Feargal Sharkey and you can tune in to his recent ruminations from ‘Have I got News You’ here.

 

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SWB reflects on coffee and Clements

Could this BE any weirder? I wrote this post last week and intended to post it today, then woke up to the news of Matthew Perry’s untimely death. So much of the late nineties for me were spent watching Friends in a collection of student hovels, or sipping coffee in Clement’s, the closest thing that Belfast had to a Central Perk. And at the moment we’re re-watching Friends in the evenings – a couple of episodes to take us up to bedtime with the kids. As a show it had almost become like background noise, but this time round I’ve been remarking to LSB just how very funny it actually was. I do hope poor tortured Perry has found peace- he brought me great joy over the years.

Back to the original post then…

Since my social media has been dominated by pictures of coffee and cake, it would be remiss not to mention a significant chain which switched its espresso machine off for good recently – the Belfast institution that was Clements coffee shop.

My first experience of coffee culture was the long narrow Clements in Stranmillis. Initially, I ordered deep bowls of hot chocolate with swirls of whipped cream on top, before graduating to ‘hammerhead coffees,’ – two shots of espresso topped with filter coffee during my final year at Queen’s. My left eye would twitch for 48 hours after consumption, but that was the least of my concerns as I crammed for my French exams on Existentialism and The ‘Theatre of the Absurd.’

After a Thursday night session in the Mandela Hall, I sought out toasted bagels with cream-cheese and jam to settle a queasy stomach. Lunch was often an oversized sausage roll with a generous dollop of ketchup, and Millionaires’ Shortbread with exactly the correct ratio of caramel to biscuit were my afternoon pick-me-up of choice. I hold Clements almost singularly responsible for my tubbiness as a student.

 

The coffee chain brought a ‘Sex and the City’ vibe to Belfast. It was to Clements we sojourned to mull over our relationships, clasping steaming mugs of Americano. Even if our paramours were lukewarm, at least the coffees were hot and reliable. I experienced both make-ups and break-ups in Clements; somehow it was easier to introduce cordiality to proceedings with a comforting cup of Joe, their signature bright décor to boost spirits, and of course, the uplifting beats. (I recall the staff in the Botanic cafe had a particular fondness for Portishead.)

It was one of the first places where I felt at ease going alone, with a book or a Marie Claire, a half-written essay or a job application.

It’s where I sipped a celebratory latte after a lump under my arm turned out to be a harmless cyst. I shed a few grateful tears that day, but no one either side of me seemed to notice.

That was the joy of Clements- dramas unfolded on either side of a tight table for two but you minded your own business and got on with it.

And it’s where I looked at my now-husband in an entirely new light and thought, you might well be the man for me. After the third failed interview in a row, the long-suffering Stevey met me on Botanic Avenue to buy me coffee and a bun to cheer me up. He tuned into my nihilism and quoted Gloucester in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.’ He didn’t know it, but it was one of my favourite lines in the play. Readers, I married him.

I wasn’t alone in finding love in Clements. My friend met her husband there too. Being of Jordanian descent, coffee houses, as opposed to pubs, were where he felt comfortable hanging out. One evening he had retired to a comfy seat with a laptop, and it was while sipping a coffee that he caught her eye. Sixteen years and three gorgeous children later they’re still together. But this time, they can’t head down to Botanic to mark their anniversary as they had done until now.

In my twenties, Clements wasn’t just a coffee house, it was a way of life; our important moments played out against the backdrop of rainbow graphics and trendy, tattooed staff. Maybe we all wanted to imagine we were part of the cast of ‘Friends,’ but it feels like I’ve lost an old constant, even if I didn’t hang out there as much in recent times.

Thanks for the memories, Clements, and Matthew Perry, you were both there for me, and countless others.

 

 

 

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SWB Finds Hope

ALEXA TURN OFF! That’s what I’ve been yelling at half-past the hour, every hour, because at home we listen to Radio 6 Music a lot and that’s when they broadcast the news.

I can’t hear it anymore – I get all shaky and sweaty and to my considerable shame roar obscenities in front of the children and have to then apologise and claim that everything ‘is ok.’

Everything is not ok. Everything’s shite, and every morning upon waking, I wonder what fresh hell awaits. Are bombs going to continue to rain down on Gaza? Will Hamas release hostages? Will Egypt open borders and does anyone in the Gaza Strip even have anything to eat or drink? Then selfishly, I wonder how the destabilising of the area with impact the rest of us, and I fear a terror attack; a nuclear bomb; World War Three.

I’ve been drinking quite a bit of red wine. No, it hasn’t helped.

But, also this weekend, we had a coffee morning and sale at the Quaker Meeting House. We were raising money for Shared Threads, the charity which was the brain child of my friend Kirsty King. We make pads from towels and leftover fabric and send them to India, Uganda and most recently to The Gambia. Kirsty has set up links with NGOs to ensure that every pack is delivered with education, to reduce period stigma, and help girls get to school. But we need money to buy the waterproof material for the pads and clean pants for each pack. Postage is increasingly costly too, to send off the boxes, so it all mounts up.

I didn’t know how many people would come to the sale. We asked at the Chelsea Wine Bar if they’d let us pop up a sign as they’re at the corner, but they said no. A few other places said yes though, and Robert, the producer on the Frank Phone-In, let me announce it there too. Readers, we made £1200.

My friend traipsed up from the Ards Peninsula, another came from Greenisland and brought her family. Friends brought friends. Joy in our group must have some sort of industrial vat at home and she made ALL the jam to sell. Emma sews and had a stall of lovely things, and the Small Child and two pals paid for a stall to sell their bracelets. My friend Aileen said her child was more excited about the event than she’d ever been at Christmas. They’re great wee workers and talented too- I’m hoping they keep me in my dotage.

The Quakers. They’re a fine bunch of lads. The KINDNESS of them, allowing us to use their space, racing into the kitchen to help us wash up, baking us mountains of cakes and buns. And the light. The morning was grey and bleak and rainy and I thought ‘F**king  typical.’ Then the sun appeared, beaming into the hall and lit the light within me too and I felt better.

Brian from Boden Park Roastery gave us coffee for the day and some to sell. He wouldn’t take a penny.

I popped down to Corrymeela in the City tonight, because their posts on-line all week have been the only thing that have made sense to me, and brought comfort. One member spoke up and said something to the effect that life is hard and full of mess, and all we can do is make our way through it, with as much care for those around us as we can muster. It is horribly messy right now. But there is hope, and there is goodness, and thankfully in Northern Ireland, we don’t have to look far to find it.

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SWB on School Daze

It didn’t take long for September to pack its bags and clear off, did it? A flurry of packing lunches and backing books and sorting schoolbags.

Packing bags- that’s a whole new ball game now the older one is in ‘big school.’ As a teacher, I didn’t appreciate quite what the head-melt it was for first years. The child checks the bag in the evening and again in the morning – demented in case she doesn’t have the right folder. It’s a very thorough affair. ‘They won’t eat you if you forget something,’ I tell her. ‘It’s not like in my day.’ Flip me, but even in primary school some of our teachers were terrifying. You were dead meat if you forgot your books -fists slammed down on the desk and everything.

I had reason to pop into her school the other day and was immediately struck by the warmth of the place: an energy; an all-round air of conviviality; colour.

I’m sure the sun peeked it’s face out from behind a cloud occasionally, but when I think of school in Bangor, I think of greyness.

I’ll never forget my first ever art class. I’d entertained high hopes. Three whole periods on a Friday afternoon, just to draw! Our first ever task? Sketching an image of our hand. IN PENCIL. What a snore-fest. My disappointment was immense. And our homework? Drawing a picture of a lawnmower (again, in pencil, the greyness continued.) My dad had to cart the Flymo out of the garage so I could attempt the illustration. Unpleased with the result, I rubbed it out and my dad had a go himself. He was awarded a C+ for his efforts.

They didn’t really do ‘encouragement’ back then. Gymnastics club, for which I had signed up with excitement, was also a tremendous disappointment. Having never attended gymnastics before, I lacked the necessary flexibility and when we were immediately asked to perform the splits the only thing that hit the floor was my jaw in disbelief. As if! Imagine my humiliation when several other first formers slid effortlessly into position as though their legs weren’t made of flesh and bone but elastic. The teacher curled her lip and wrote me off. ‘I’d give you a 2 out of 10 for that,’ she said, and moved swiftly on. I didn’t go back.

Things picked up as I got older, but a prevailing sense of boredom is how I remember junior school.

LSB certainly didn’t fare much better, but times were tricky on the Falls Road in the nineties. God forbid you were late, didn’t matter whether you just slept in, or the police were raiding the house three doors down and your street was cordoned off. You still got the same bollocking.

In June he’d no chance of getting in before nine as half of West Belfast was headed to Clonard and the traffic was snarled up as far as the Glen Road with all the devoted.

‘Late again Garland?’

‘Novena Sir.’

‘That’s right Garland, blame it on Our Lady.’

And the uniform! Never get my husband started on the draconian laws they laid down on that issue. There was ice on the ground one day and he rocked up wearing a jumper. ‘NON-REGULATION!’ yelled some total jobsworth at the gate. ‘I’m ringing your mother!’ ‘

Go ahead,’ Stevey told him. The hapless teacher promptly rang up and woke my late mother-in-law after her nightshift in the Royal. Choice words were used and the subject was dropped.

And now, if it isn’t auld Kanye West himself wearing a St Mary’s hoodie! Rumour has it that it was taken off him as soon as he walked through the school doors…(distinguished alumni or not..)

(Apparently if you went to the school you’d get this reference)