A Proper Place

img_0441Growing up in rural Northern Ireland was often a privilege – long summer days spent roaming ‘the fields’ with my brother and sister; late evenings with neighbours and cousins playing football until the light went out of the sky; the excitement of the mobile library visiting with unknown pages to devour. There was another side of life at that time too though, the one where the sound of army helicopters filled the quiet sky and when ‘bombscare’ was an all too familiar term to a child.

I was a bookish young girl. I loved to read, I loved the escape, the excitement of entering new worlds and characters becoming friends. I was intrigued by the adventures of The Four Marys in Bunty, I yearned for a midnight picnic like the girls at St Clare’s and oh how much did I want homemade lemonade like the Secret Seven! Those books were so removed from me and my experience of childhood, then Joan Lingard came along and nudged my imagination closer to home!

The Sadie and Kevin series of books pictured (£1-£2, Oxfam) feature these central characters who were from Belfast, Protestant and Catholic respectively. The first book in the series The Twelfth Day of July is the beginning of their love story. They meet as teens and their relationship is set against the politics of the time – the absolute antithesis of my Enid Blyton reading!

And yet I loved those books. As a country girl, Belfast was exotic. I remember reading about Sadie and Kevin heading up Cave Hill to eat fish and chips, and thinking I’d definitely do that one day. The dialogue was so real, the characters so finely tuned, and the idea that we could all get through the challenges we faced, despite our different backgrounds and experiences, was so vivid. Sadie and Kevin personified hope, even though as a child I probably didn’t quite realise what it was that I loved so much about them.

When I first saw A Proper Place on the shelves of Oxfam Books, Botanic a little while ago everything I loved about reading those books came flooding back and I’ve been picking up the series, book by book again in Oxfam since. I’m still missing Hostages to Fortune but I know it will turn up.  I was a bit fearful of re-reading something that meant so much to me, and I was worried about losing the magic. I needn’t have been. Having lived in Belfast now for almost 20 years, I feel even closer to Sadie and Kevin. Their story is just as powerful now as it was then, perhaps for different reasons.

This bookish country girl DID eventually find her own Belfast boy although I haven’t yet had my fish supper on Cave Hill!  And while NI is not a perfect place yet (we still have a way to go) it has a proper place in my heart.

Rosie xx

Charity Shop Mystery

Something I really love about being obsessed by vintage is the fact that you often come across finds that spark an additional interest. Thanks to my love of sparkly old brooches for instance I’ve really increased my knowledge of vintage costume jewellery. When I find a piece or a signature I don’t recognise, I love to find out more.

When I came across this 1920s auction catalogue for £1 in my local Oxfam charity book shop, addressed ‘Clarence Place, May Street, Belfast’ the vintage sleuth within was awakened. I didn’t recognise the location – I know Clarence Street and May Street but Clarence Place was a conundrum to me. I love my city and I love uncovering its secrets, so a few minutes of googling and I was able to place it – http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/lanyon/5.html

It’s a stunning Victorian building, known as Clarence Place Hall, designed by the infamous Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon, as in Charles Lanyon, the architect behind Queen’s University & Belfast Castle among many other stunning sites. It’s actually close to the infamous Ross’ auction house in the city centre and was originally Diocesan Offices, a hall, reading rooms and offices for the Church of Ireland Young Men’s Society. Although I walk past the building almost every morning, now home to a local estate agent, I never gave it a second glance! How blind we can become to the amazing things around us sometimes.

And so having located the building, I noticed when I opened the catalogue there was even more local history to discover. The auction catalogue featured a local artist, William Gibbs (W.G) Mackenzie, a man previously unknown to me, but judging by the sale list, a prolific painter who featured a lot of Northern Irish locations in his work. I found myself googling again 🙂 He was clearly a man of talent but as the catalogue says, ‘never attained the popularity which his undoubted talent would have commanded had he been more forceful and self-assertive’. There’s something simultaneously sweet and sad about that line, isn’t there…I was really delighted to find out online that his work is now included in collections at Belfast City Hall and the Ulster Museum. In fact, one of his pieces ‘Street Scene with Newspaper Vendors and Boys Playing a Game Of Spinner’ sold in 2011 for $13,559. Recognition at last.

Then, out of the catalogue fell a photo. A picture of a very dapper man painting the portrait of a rather important looking gentleman. There’s no inscription on the back and I’ve not been able to confirm the identity of either man, despite plenty of online hours searching, but I’m really hoping that the picture is ‘modest and retiring’ Mr Mackenzie! That really would be quite an insight. And I wonder how many of the items listed under ‘furnishings’ in the catalogue might be in that very photo.

So my mystery is going to take a little more time to solve! I’m hoping I’ll get a bit of help in the process. In the meantime, I’ll be taking a much keener interest in Clarence Place Hall on my daily travels into work. What a reminder of the joy I get from my charity shop travels too.

Rosie xx

Strawberries & Dreams

As a young ginger girl I didn’t have many red-headed role models. RTÉ viewers will remember Bosco…enough said! There was also Fergie (the royal, not the football version) with her fabulous freckles and titian hair tied up with bows. But there was another, an adventurous red-haired character from Strawberryland who was the star of my early childhood – yes, Strawberry Shortcake.

The original Strawberry Shortcake was created in 1977, the year I was born. I was quite obsessed-there were stickers, books, bags, an incredible pencil-case shaped like a pencil that smelled of strawberries…I could go on! Here was a red-haired character with loads of freckles who wasn’t teased and tortured, who wasn’t an outsider. She was loved and celebrated.

So, a couple of years ago I stumbled upon this adorable Strawberry Shortcake book on eBay and I had to have it. When it arrived, I was faced with a dilemma. You know how much I love my vintage books and how loathe I am to recycle or repurpose them. I like to enjoy them for the purpose for which they were intended. With my Strawberry Shortcake book though, I knew I couldn’t just put it into the bookcase to be pulled out now and again. Along with WonderWoman, she’s a childhood hero. I wanted Strawberry Shortcake to be an everyday reminder of the joy of being a redhead, something I didn’t or couldn’t appreciate enough as a little girl.

So I did something. I cut a page out of my book and framed it…yikes! But you know something, I didn’t feel bad about it at all. That little book wouldn’t have had the outings it deserved and I wouldn’t have the absolute child-like joy I feel every time I walk past my lovely picture.

img_2122It’s odd that although I’m quickly approaching my 40s that this quirky little cartoon character still has the ability to inspire such happiness.  It goes to show, I suppose, the impact that a positive role model can have on a child, real or fictional. And what is very important I think is that we never stop celebrating those role models, no matter what age we reach, as they will always hold something very dear to us-our childhood hopes and dreams.

Rosie xx