Monthly Archives:

October 2023


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.





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.


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)