31 August 2020 08:35

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His east Belfast near contemporary, Stewart Parker, recalls in Dramatis Personae & other writings how he "started a skiffle group called The Troubadours which performed at one or two church hall dances. Leontia Flynn's poetry equally lives out in the world of strange, exhilarating encounters and though music and song don't function in her writing in any conscious or allusive way, its presence is more like mood music. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that in her second volume, Drives, amid all the big names of European and American artists and thinkers, who should pop up in the "car stereo system" but Van Morrison. Cyprus Avenue provides the title for David Ireland's extraordinary play and it also features as a title in Lucy Caldwell's moving collection of stories, Multitudes. For these stories, set in the main in east Belfast, move through a backdrop which has distinctive Morrison-like moods and reveries.

The hypnotic quality of walking and uncovering a deeper layer of emotional reality, something "un-seeable" but tangible all the same, is a current that flows through so much of northern Irish writing, particularly that based in or around Belfast, as if in defiance of the scarred and disfiguring history of the place the place itself produces a magic of its own: "…across the Ravenhill Road, down Toronto Street and London Street and the London Road, Rosebery Road and Willowfield Drive and across the Woodstock Road and on, further and further east until we are in Van Morrison territory: Hyndford Street and Abetta Parade, Grand Parade, the North Road, Orangefield." It is hardly surprising that in her reflections on Van Morrison, Lucy Caldwell should call her Irish Times article Streets Like These (2016) because the landscape her characters either inhabit (or return to) matters so much: "The memory of a long car journey, coming back over the Craigantlet Hills from a trip to Donaghadee Lighthouse. On summer weekends, or special occasions, or most excitingly of all, if my Dad was test-driving a new car, we would drive out of Belfast along the coastal roads of the Ards Peninsula; and in the car Van Morrison would be playing. Sometimes the Chieftains, or Leonard Cohen, but I remember most of all the music of Van Morrison, a double cassette-tape of Hymns to the Silence, as my sisters and I day-dreamed and drowsed against each other in the back seat, cosy and warm and lulled by the car and the music. Caldwell goes on to specify the landscape which Morrison's music, lyrics and performance endows with an almost-spiritual value: "And then one day, for no reason at all, your Mum takes a detour back from the Ormeau Embankment down Hyndford Street, through Orangefield, along Cyprus Avenue, and tells you that these are the places in the songs. Van Morrison understands this, and it is in his music that I first had intimations of it: the power of naming, the power of litany." Van Morrison's literary influence as he celebrates his 75th birthday is now surfacing in Northern Ireland and finding its level amongst some of the finest writers of a younger generation including Lucy Caldwell, Wendy Erskine and David Ireland, all three of whom have family and cultural roots in east Belfast, which Morrison transformed into a lyrical landscape all of his own while producing as well an alternative vision of the city and a very different "alternative" history.

Looking Through You: Northern Chronicles is published in hardback by Merrion Press along with a paperback edition of In Another World: Van Morrison & Belfast. Dr Who actor Christopher Eccleston took the bright side of the road yesterday when he visited the east Belfast home of rock superstar Van Morrison on the eve of the singer's 75th birthday. And the Hyndford Street pilgrimage wasn't the only Van-related location on the actor's weekend itinerary. During a jog in the east of the city, the actor also took in Cyprus Avenue, considered by many Van fans to be the standout track on Morrison's breakthrough 1968 album Astral Weeks. Morrison's songs regularly reference places he frequented as a child with Orangefield, Hyndford Street and The Hollow in east Belfast, as well as Coney Island in Co Down, all immortalised in his songs. One of the UK's best known film and TV actors, Eccleston was in the city as part of the preparation for his role in a new play by Belfast writer Owen McCafferty. Called The Post Corona Theatre Menu, the play will be staged in a private home in Belfast in October, with the scenes being performed in separate rooms, with the audience moving from room to room to see the scenes being performed. Eccleston has a long-established connection to Belfast, having worked on the BBC drama Come Home. The play is being produced by the Soda Bread Theatre Company, which was established to showcase Northern Ireland's best writers and acting talent. Soda Bread works with well known actors, and selects shows that get audiences away from their box sets and down to the theatre box office.