Belfast Telegraph

Wander with a sense of wonder: Glenn Patterson offers his own cultural route map of east Belfast

The novelist and long-time resident of the area on the rich artistic heritage, from CS Lewis to Van Morrison and Terri Hooley

Some time early in 2013 (it was snowing then too, I remember) I went (walked, which is how I remember the snow) to a meeting at the East Belfast Partnership Board on the Newtownards Road, whose aim I think could be summed up as addressing east Belfast's image problem.

I volunteered to write something up - a sort of cultural passport for the east - and as I walked home again, thinking, "Why on earth did I say I would do that?", one word in particular lodged in my mind. The snow might have helped, but I would have got there without it. The word was wonder.

Given the recurrence of "wonder" in the east's vocabulary (from Van Morrison's A Sense Of Wonder to David Holmes' I Heard Wonders), it might be appropriate to think not of a "cultural passport", but a "wallet of wonders", which may be entirely virtual - an up-and-down-loadable series of works and impressions - or, for those who have not yet fully embraced the digital age, and those who having embraced it are going back to reality - all vinyl and Polaroids - an actual, physical folder, large enough to accommodate a couple of books, an album or two, a leaf - why not? - from a street named in one of the greatest rock records ever made.

What follows is my own suggested itinerary, guided not so much by the street map as by the works - the "wonders" - and the workers themselves.

It does not only have the out-of-town visitor in mind, but imagines anyone unfamiliar with east Belfast, poised rather like the Searcher in the Ross Wilson sculpture of that name at Holywood Arches, about to open a door and enter in.

In terms of music and the east, it is hard to look past Astral Weeks, an appreciation of which is greatly enhanced by a walk from Hyndford Street, Van Morrison's birthplace, along the Beersbridge Road and up Cyprus Avenue.

Of course, the album, while perhaps the most extraordinary example of environment acted on by imagination, is only a small fraction of Morrison's output.

Gloria is one of the most covered songs in the rock 'n' roll canon: Bruce Springsteen, in a concert recorded in 2008, can be heard to shout, "Now we're going to take it back to where it all began" before launching into his version.

Morrison played one of his earliest gigs at the Strand Cinema with a group that pre-dated Them and the famous residency in the Maritime Hotel.

Terri Hooley, who DJ-ed at the Maritime, grew up off Pim's Avenue, at the back of the Strand. He would later, famously, run the Good Vibrations record shop and label.

Teenage Kicks may be the best-known Good Vibrations release, but the first record he put out was Big Time by east Belfast band Rudi, whose own first gigs had been at Glenmachan Stables, now part of Glenmachan Church of God.

In a neat closing of the circle, Good Vibrations, the movie based on Hooley's life, had its opening in the Strand.

Its directors and scriptwriters (I must confess to being one) are all east Belfast residents, as is one of its producers, Holmes.

Holmes was a regular in Terri's shop from his early teens - stocking up on soul and Hollywood soundtracks, which may go a long way to explain his subsequent career as a soundtrack composer and Belfast's most famous DJ and record producer.

Holmes's own album - The Holy Pictures - largely recorded in his home studio in east Belfast, contains the track I Heard Wonders, heard by tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

The Strand, it is worth mentioning, is the last functioning pre-war suburban cinema and is, therefore, of increasing architectural interest.

It was built in 1935 on the site of Strandtown House, formerly the home of Gustav Heyn, a shipping magnate, whose memory lives on in the porthole-shaped lights on the walls of the auditorium.

Pre-dating the Strand by almost exactly a century is Castlereagh Presbyterian Church on Church Road in the Castlereagh hills.

The church is remarkable for several reasons, not least for its location, which is reputed to be on or very near the so-called "Eagle's Nest", ancestral home of the O'Neill clan until the early 17th century.

Castlereagh Presbyterian was designed by a (very) young Belfast architect, John Millar, and featured a particular type of Ionic column unseen anywhere since ancient Greek times (the supposed first use was in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, completed several years after Castlereagh Presbyterian).

Coming down from the church - if possible by the Rocky Road the better to understand the Eagle's Nest nickname, for there are few views to rival it in (and of) all of Belfast - you are only a short distance from the Cregagh estate, which besides being one of the finest examples of post-war municipal housing (designed by Thomas Rippingham), is also the birthplace of George Best, whose name is its own superlative.

Best's funeral procession, from the Cregagh estate to Stormont (imagine, I nearly neglected to mention Stormont…) features in The Light Of Amsterdam by David Park.

Park's previous novel, The Truth Commissioner, features another iconic east Belfast building, the Harland & Wolff drawing office on the reclaimed land latterly known as the Titanic Quarter. The twin cranes, Samson and Goliath, with their H&W livery, are the symbolic gateways to the east.

We'll call the drawing office the gate lodge.

The Dee Street Bridge, which connects the Titanic Quarter with the broader east, is alluded to in the title of Sam Thompson's Over The Bridge, 50 years after it was produced still one of the most important plays about the city and its sectarian tensions (since I wrote the piece for the East Belfast Partnership Board a new bridge bearing Sam Thompson's name has been built connecting Victoria Park and Airport Road).

Over the Dee Street bridge, along Mersey Street and Connsbrook Avenue, is Larkfield Road, the birthplace of Stewart Parker, whose play Pentecost is set against he backdrop of the more recent Troubles and whose Northern Star re-imagines the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion (alternatively, over the bridge and straight down Dee Street itself, across the Newtownards Road, is a modern architectural wonder, Skainos, hanging gardens and all).

Marie Jones and Dan Gordon are both from the Mersey Street area.

Jones's Stones In His Pockets and Night In November both enjoyed considerable international success and Gordon's Boat Factory - also set in Harland & Wolff - is about to debut in New York.

Actually, this part of Belfast has more playwrights than you could shake a stick at (if we lived in stick-shaking times, which happily we don't anymore. Do we?) Lucy Caldwell - besides being the city's foremost young novelist (All The Beggars Riding was the One City One Book choice for 2013) - has also written numerous plays for stage and radio.

Caldwell was brought up on Circular Road not far from Little Lea, childhood home of CS Lewis, which brings our Searcher back to his or her starting point: the creator of the Wardrobe, and the Lion and the Witch who lived on the other side of its door.

The Searcher could do worse on leaving east Belfast to go out by the Craigantlet Hills - resisting the right turn into the Stormont Estate - for a glimpse of the Mourne Mountains and perhaps the origins of Narnia itself.

Glenn Patterson's latest novel, The Rest Just Follows, is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99

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