When I turned fifty (admittedly a while ago), I realized that: a) I would never make enough money to go to a job I hate every day and b) money really isn’t everything although I have often acted as though it is. Much to the chagrin of Suze Orman, I don’t organize money neatly in my wallet, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how much is in the checking account at any given time. If I must choose between purchasing something sensible like a new kitchen appliance or springing for a hard-bound signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Nobel speech, “Crediting Poetry,” well, there is no choice which leads me to an August afternoon in 2013, two weeks before Heaney died.
Time and space collapsed when I spotted the handsome little volume perched on a shelf in an air-conditioned fine out-of-print books store in Arizona, about as far away as I could be from Anahorish, “where springs washed into the shiny grass.” Alas, I didn’t buy the signed first US edition that afternoon, and I felt so guilty for having abandoned it there, that I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would go back, with an explanation to the avuncular Phoenician bookseller, of the finer points of buying ‘on tick.’
Previously, the best money I ever spent was in 1982. Flush with my university grant money, I bought three things that would change my life – a Eurail pass, a 35mm camera, and a hi-fi stereo system. I moved out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College and into a red-brick terraced house on Ridgeway Street, where I lived with four male engineering students who tolerated my girliness and threw great parties without ever damaging any of my vinyl.
At the lower end of our street was The Lyric Theater and at the top, The Belfast Wine Company, a convenient and well-stocked off-license.
In the middle, houses teemed with students, all imaginative misfits like me, most of us going to our classes only when there was nothing else to do. What sparkles in my memory is the time spent on Ridgeway Street and one glorious evening when we spilled out of our houses and onto the road, pelting each other with water balloons while the frontman of Thin Lizzy, a very cool Phil Lynott, leaned against the door jamb of a house full of art students from Derry. I have no idea what he was doing there, but he was enjoying himself. Maybe he got lost on the way to wherever he was supposed to be staying after a gig at The Kings Hall. In my mind’s eye he is as plain as day, smoking and laughing at us as we soaked each other, on the kind of shimmering summer night that transforms Northern Ireland into a veritable tourist destination.Decades later and all the vinyl records bought with my lunch money and my university grant, are stowed away in the roof-space of my parent’s house in Castledawson. Faded and stashed between the pages of an old diary, the Eurail pass took me to places that have stayed in my heart to this day – Paris, Florence, Rome, Capri, the Greek islands. The Olympus camera? It was stolen from my first apartment in Phoenix.
It took thirty years and a breast cancer diagnosis before I would buy another 35mm camera, when I was ready finally to take stock and see things through different lenses. In the Fall of 2012, a friend and I enrolled in a college photography class that required us to pay attention to shapes and patterns and all the lines and curves we might otherwise miss going about my daily business. The photography teacher’s assignments sent me on scavenger hunts every Sunday to spots like the “Water Mark,” where five 14-foot aluminum horses that guard a road in Scottsdale. Some folks believe it should be designated a wonder of the world, but my teacher just wanted me to notice it, to pay attention to those splendid horses that evoke the Wild West but also prevent flooding during our Monsoon season. At such times, water gushes from the horse’s mouths, and it is an awesome sight.
Now I know those wild horses belong in the Arizona desert where the rains are rare, but I prefer to think of them along the Annadale Embankment, watching over us at the end of a wild Belfast night.
Footnote: The Heaney Lecture is now where it belongs – between Door into the Dark and Stepping Stones . . . on my bookcase. As for Phil? As Joseph O’Connor explains, he was “the first Irish person ever to bound onto a stadium stage in leather trousers and bawl to the gods: “Are you OUT there?” He was our first rock star, gone too soon, and on a rainy night in Phoenix, some three decades later, I can still hear his coyote call . . .
But there is the replenishing joy of the songs themselves, that carnival of outlaws, renegades and chancers, tumbling through the sunbursts of his rhymes. From the lonesome cowboy’s prairie to the louche streets of Soho, from the mythic Celtic battlefields over to Dino’s bar and grill, his restless creativity roamed. You could stock a damn good jukebox with only his work, so vivid the eye for detail and so capacious its reach . . . The songs will abide. That’s the only consolation. But it’s a real one. Even in the darkest night, you can always hear the king’s call.