Belfast Telegraph

How the ghost of Belfast past remains, but not for long, in the final days of an old social club

Where else could you find a pop icon calling bingo than the soon to be demolished Maple Leaf, asks Fionola Meredith

When it was reported last month that Jarvis Cocker had been moonlighting as a bingo caller in the Maple Leaf Social Club, many people asked - where? And why would one of Britpop's biggest stars, the ex-frontman of Pulp, be calling bingo numbers in an obscure club in east Belfast?

The Maple Leaf, on Park Avenue, has actually been in existence since the late 1960s. Now awaiting demolition, it's only a matter of time before the bulldozers move in.

But in the dying days of the old club, something remarkable has happened. A number of artists and musicians, most notably the renowned Belfast DJ, musician and producer, David Holmes, have discovered this extraordinary venue and are bringing it to life again. For one brief, final moment, the Maple Leaf is once more the place to go on a Saturday night.

In its 1970s heyday, the Maple Leaf was one of the most popular social clubs in the country. People queued all the way down the street to get into its famous weekend discos.

According to a plaque displayed proudly on the wall, the Ulster Maple Leaf Sports and Social Club was opened by Sir Percy Rugg on June 22, 1968, though nobody can remember who Sir Percy was, or why he was asked to do the honours.

The club was originally a meeting spot for emigrants heading to Canada on the first transatlantic flights from Belfast - hence the maple leaf in the name - when you needed to be in a members club to get a visa. Passengers paid one pound each to join, but when the law changed and travel agents took over, the members got together and bought the club as an entertainment venue.

Freddie Brady, who has been the secretary of the Maple Leaf since the mid-1970s, remembers what it was like: "We had over a thousand members, and we went on right through the Troubles. Cabaret, showbands, entertainment every Friday and Saturday night.

"We never had any trouble. It was totally non-sectarian. Everyone was just here to enjoy themselves."

One of the most remarkable things about the club today is that it has barely changed at all. The upstairs bar has walls lined with red velvet, crisps are still set out in bowls on the counter, the coasters are arranged in pristine circles, and the ghost of stale cigarette smoke lingers in the air. When you come through the front door, to be greeted by dignified men in blazers and club ties, and firmly asked to sign the guestbook, you feel as though you are stepping into a lost era.

"It's like walking into the Bates motel," says David Holmes. "There's nothing glamorous about it at all, but that's the biggest irony - people pouring pounds into these glamorous, glitzy venues, when the best venues are always the ones where your feet stick to the carpet. Being from Belfast, and having lived here all my life, the happiest times I've ever had were in these kind of places. You walk in the door and you just know you're going to have a great time there."

Holmes describes God's Waiting Room, his club night at the Maple Leaf, as "great sound, weird films and five hours straight playing the music I love". In the past few months, he has brought very special guests like Andy Weatherall, Jane Weaver, Sons of Raphael, Jah Wobble and, most recently, Jarvis Cocker to the club, which is how Cocker ended up doing an impromptu stint at the bingo.

And tomorrow night, the God's Waiting Room Christmas party will be taking place. Once more, the bars will be packed, the dancefloor will be full, and the glitterball overhead will be slowly turning, just like in the old days.

For how much longer? Nobody knows. The demise of the Maple Leaf is certain, but the knowledge that this is the old club's swansong, before being reduced to a pile of rubble, is a poignant part of the magic. The sense of melancholy makes the pleasure all the sweeter, because you know it cannot last.

Since the end of the Troubles, Belfast has been eager to redefine itself as a new, shiny, very modern destination. Bland, sanitised and unobjectionable, just like any other city.

But it's in venues like the Maple Leaf Social Club that you catch a glimpse of a different Belfast: unvarnished, cinematic, richly redolent of the past.

One by one, these places are dying out.

All the more reason to celebrate them while they are still alive and among us.

Belfast Telegraph

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