Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

MTV bash shows how Belfast never lost party spirit

When we were young what passed for a social life was drinking wine in the phone box. There weren't a whole lot of other entertainment options.

The phone box provided cover both from the weather and passers-by who (we assumed anyway) would see innocent kids making a call. Not an underage drinking den.

We graduated to a bar in a nearby town which had been bombed so many times the boarding used to cover from previous explosions had itself been patched up.

I always remember the bewilderment in the eyes of the squaddies when we stepped around their foot patrols into what must have looked to them like a derelict ruin.

Inside, when anybody new came in to the bar, it wasn't that we were immediately on edge. But you did notice things. Whether they carried a bag ... did they go to the toilets with it ... did they have it when they came back ... ?

That casual, automatic security reflex was second nature. But when you're young, having a good time always trumps fear. We didn't dwell too much on the what ifs.

God knows what it must have been like for our parents though, worrying about where we might be, what could happen.

I have a friend who was caught up in one of the worse bombings of the Troubles. As she scrambled from the ruins of the bar she saw sights that no human being, let alone a young girl, should ever see.

She stood for hours in the street utterly traumatised. But she couldn't go home. She didn't know how she was going to break it to her mother that she'd been in the bar in the first place.

When I came to live in Belfast some of the pubs we drank in kept the key of the Ladies behind the counter.

That's because the female toilets would be upstairs and easier (for bombers) to access unnoticed than the gents.

We accepted such small indignities like having to ask for the toilet key because that abnormality was our normality.

We used to drink in Benny's, the iconic watering hole of Belfast journalism. The front door of the bar was locked. You had to ring three times then stand back into the light of the street so that Benny or the barman, Billy, could see you. If they recognised you, you were in. It was a crude security arrangement but it worked.

I remember one dark night at the height of the Troubles going into a south Belfast restaurant - one of the very few that was open - and as soon as we came through the door every waiter in the place jumped.

You could taste fear in the air as piquant as the food on your plate.

Entertainment-wise about the only international influence we were exposed to back then was the fake American accent of the local pub singers.

Promoters like the late Jim Aiken and Eamon McCann, now a columnist on this paper, revolutionised the nightlife of the city. But you always knew any star's appearance was dependant on the savagery of the headlines.

It may be the enduring boast of showbiz, but in Northern Ireland, the show didn't always go on.

But that began to change, gradually, spectacularly. These days we have become almost blasé about the global stars dropping in on us.

Rihanna shooting a video just off the Bangor dual carriageway, Katy Perry one week, Britney the next. And now the entire glittering galaxy of MTV.

We have come such a long, long way.

Those awards this week are about recognising the current cream of music aristocracy.

But while the industry insiders and the visiting media may not get this, they also in a way salute a city which endured the very darkest of times with spirit and a refusal to let terror win.

A city which more than most has earned the right to party.

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