Henry McDonald's Inspirational Places

From Belfast to Berlin and from Nerja to Hove
Belfast City Hall
Henry McDonald Two Souls book Parisienne book shop
Henry McDonald In Berlin mid 80s dark and brooding in the west
Henry McDonald Berlin inspirational places
Henry McDonald inspirational places Nerja
Henry McDonald Hove inspirational places

“Even during the Troubles there remained a good social life in the centre…the real heroes, were those men and women who kept nightlife and socialising going during the darkest years. ” Henry McDonald

Author of the novels Two Souls and The Swinging Detective, eight non-fiction books and Senior Reporter for The Guardian Newspaper, Henry McDonald, talks about growing up in Belfast during The Troubles and how this impacted him personally and creatively. Discover the inspirational roles that Berlin, Nerja and Hove have also played in Henry’s life.
Interview by Jackie De Burca with a focus on Two Souls and inspirational environments
Born in Market Street in Belfast on 6th July 1965, Henry McDonald has been immensely influenced creatively and otherwise by growing up during The Troubles in Belfast. However, he has also been influenced by other places especially Berlin, Nerja and Hove. Let’s take a look at these four places in 1965.

Belfast 1965

The Troubles had not yet started when the Rolling Stones performed at the ABC Theatre on 6th January 1965, exactly six months before Henry McDonald’s birth. In the video below, the very young Rolling Stones are interviewed and do their soundcheck/rehearsal. Thanks to Deltics.

Meanwhile in Berlin in 1965, the Fernsehturm Berlin (Television Tower) was constructed. Located south of Alexanderplatz, it was built by the order of the German Democratic Republic, which at that time controlled East Berlin. These days it is an iconic symbol of Berlin with panoramic views over the entire city. Queen Elizabeth II also visited the city that year.

Nerja in Andalucia, Southern Spain, also looked very different from how it is today. In 1965, the Parador of Nerja was constructed, as tourism had started to take off after a group of young boys found the now-famous Nerja Caves.

Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, married Maureen Cox on 11th February in Caxton Hall and took her off for a glamourous honeymoon in Hove, in East Sussex, England.

What kind of memories do you have of your childhood in Belfast?

“Good ones and bad. The area was Dickensian, some streets still had cobblestones and in my earliest years, Reilly’s Place where I was born right up against the gasworks wall still had gaslit street lamps. ”

As the Market born poet Padraic Fiacc once noted, “it would always darken suddenly.” Yet there was light too, the illuminated orange glow from the lights behind Inglis’ Bakery in Eliza Street where I grew and where I went to school. On summer and spring nights, we played midnight football behind the bakery because we had free floodlights courtesy of Inglis. There was also the presence of cattle and horses with an abattoir nearby and the markets across the road. A number of traditional families had stables including one across the road. I rode on their horses, fed the animals apples or groomed them or took them out for walks.

As well as the Troubles erupting when I was four there were outside toilets, freezing, damp ridden walls, windows where rain and cold penetrated, little luxury possessions or few mod cons.

We lived beside a pub and the big brown gate to its keg house became our ‘nets’ for 15 minute each way mini-matches or penalty shoot outs. The bar Mooney’s did a mean range of sandwiches which Mrs Mooney cut delicately into perfect triangular segments and wrapped them in grease paper.

If this all sounds like urban arcadia with a tinge of the countryside beyond Belfast then that’s because it was. That was the bucolic side of a Market childhood. There were, of course, darker sides to it all. As well as the Troubles erupting when I was 4 there were outside toilets, freezing, damp ridden walls, windows where rain and cold penetrated, little luxury possessions or few mod cons. Right into the end of the 70s, a bath was one of those long metal things that you saw in movies hanging up on the wall of a miner’s cottage in Wales when the miner would come home to have coal dust scrubbed from his back. We didn’t have a proper bathroom until 1980 or an inside toilet.

My pre-teen years were dominated by football and playing Subbuteo in my friend Paul’s house in Market Street. He had the best collection around of teams, scoreboard, pitch, mini floodlights and even a stand with spectators. We organised Subbuteo leagues.

One tournament in his parlour was temporarily interrupted by a gun battle between the Official IRA and the British Army around 71. His mother burst through the parlour door imploring us to lie on her bellies in case stray bullets pierced the windows. We were way ahead of her. We were already on our stomachs because that was the best way to flick-to-kick on a pitch laid out over the carpet. I did raise my head once during the shooting to peak out and spotted a friend of my family firing a Thompson Sub-machine gun at British troops. Then it was back to the match….

Within a few years, the area was rapidly transformed for the better by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That public body did more to revolutionise people’s lives than paramilitaries or revolutionary parties claimed to do. It gave residents homes with central heating, gardens, bathrooms etc. While the old character of the Victorian-industrial revolution era streets was lost lives were saved or prolonged thanks to better living conditions.

Photo to the right: Mooney’s Pub May 26, 1938.. Photo courtesy of Belfast Live

Belfast Henry McDonald Mooney's Pub May 26, 1938.. Photo courtesy of Belfast Live

You and your family had some close escapes during the Troubles, can you tell us about them?

Suddenly there was this huge noise and then an invisible force that pushed me off the chair and onto the carpeted floor.

Living beside a pub was both exciting but also dangerous. I remember two incidents in 1974 and 1975. Our house had already been smashed up on internment day 1971 but I nearly lost my life in these two incidents from the mid-70s.

In 1974, myself and a neighbouring boy were playing penalties at Mooney’s keg gate. We were re-enacting shoot-outs from the World Cup in West Germany that summer of which we had become obsessed. I noticed a car slowly traversing Cromac Street. It was a white Cortina and it had two puffed distinct orange cushions in the back. It drove the city centre bound past the pub and then a few minutes later it came back up in the opposite direction. At the corner of Cromac and Eliza Street, it slowed even further and then a window rolled down. A metal thing poked out of the window and then the next thing I heard was the spluttering sound of gunfire. A machine-gun attack on punters going into the bar on an early Friday evening. Billy and I dived on our bellies instinctively as the bullets whizzed past. I then could hear the Cortina accelerating and screeching off towards the Ormeau Road. I think a couple of men were lightly wounded in the shooting but we had not been hit. From a penalty shoot-out to a real live shooting match!

A year later my dad and I were in the front living room of No.1 Eliza Street and I was kind of leaning against his shoulder on the side of a sofa watching TV. ‘It’s a Knockout” was on the box so it must have been a Friday night again. Suddenly there was this huge noise and then an invisible force that pushed me off the chair and onto the carpeted floor. I could hear the creak and squeal of our front windows imploding, glass flying across the room. When I got up there was a huge sliver of glass lying on top of my father and I thought he was dead. He wasn’t and the only casualty appeared to be our antiquated TV which had cracked in the force of the explosion. My dad got out and grabbed me across the room, into the hall and then through to the backyard as far away as possible from the street. It turned out there had been a car bomb placed outside our door designed to catch Catholic customers going into Mooney’s for after-work drinks on Friday evening. The device had exploded in the car but mercifully at a time when no one was passing by. We had not been killed because of the way the device had been left in the car.

My mother watched all this ‘action’ while further down Eliza Street at the local shop facing my primary school. She was there with my sister getting a few sweets for me and her for our Friday night treat. A few months later she had her first heart attack.

There are so many other incidents like this one that I can recall but they would fill a book. I saw the aftermath of an old friend who was blown up. My schoolroom was used by snipers to kill a soldier across the street. I witnessed young men left bleeding, crying, wailing in pain after being ‘kneecapped.’ I can recall so many around me who either went to jail or the cemetery. I got beaten and humiliated by soldiers. Threatened by various factions. Chased by young Ulster loyalist skinheads one of whom had a hammer in his hand close to the back of Belfast City Hall. I was lucky. Others were not so.

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald with his father 1974

Henry McDonald with his father 1974

Was there a deep purpose for you to have the courage to write your 2019 book, Two Souls, and if so, what was it?

I am the sole survivor. So, it is a book of ghosts in many ways.

‘Deep purpose’ is a very good way of putting this drive, this impetus, this throb that wouldn’t go away when it comes to the novel. It was a book that I HAD to write. There were many demons that needed to be exorcised. I picked some seminal moments in my teenage life: becoming a punk; falling in love for the first time and then being absorbed into a menacing organism, the perilous comfort of the Crowd in the football hooligan scene.

I would not say it was in any way courageous to write this book. At times it was hard because the characters are partially (stress partially) based on real-life characters. It was only when I started writing the book that I realised almost all of them in real life are now dead. I am the sole survivor. So, it is a book of ghosts in many ways. The use of Bowie’s ‘Low’ album in the love chapters was nearly unconscious at first but then I came to realise some of these tracks were like haunting, howling anthems for the lost. This is especially the case with the instrumentals like ‘Warsawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’. They are sub-orchestral arrangements for lost souls.

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald’s latest novel, Two Souls

Henry McDonald Two Souls

How do you treat the central theme of betrayal in Two Souls?

It’s all very well branding this person or that person an ‘informer’ but this place is an entire society of informers

There are two betrayals in the novel. One is Sabine abandoning Robbie after their ‘Astral Weeks’ summer of love albeit played out to the ‘Low’ soundtrack comes to an end. She is quite ruthless about the need to move on even if it means severing her ties with him. In turn, he grows bitter and seeks solace in the company of a semi-psychopathic friend who leads him down a very dark alley towards an ultimate betrayal – the passing of information that leads to the loss of human life.

The human rights campaigner Fr Denis Faul once said something to me that I have never forgotten. “It’s all very well branding this person or that person an ‘informer’ but this place is an entire society of informers. It is a society where one whispered a word about someone else in a workplace, a public house, a hospital, the often-taken route home or to a job can lead to lethal consequences.”  In other words, thousands spied on each other either for the forces of the state or for the rival paramilitary factions building up so-called ‘intelligence’ for hits, jobs, operations; all of these words, of course, mere euphemisms to mask murder.

Photo to the right: Belfast murals hands by Kevin Smith

Belfast murals hands by Kevin Smith

Your father's character in Two Souls is repeatedly telling you to get out of Belfast as soon as you can. When was the first time you left and where did you go?

It gave me a sense of life-is-elsewhere but that had already happened in life with a very early trip to East Berlin

If you exclude holidays abroad including an extended trip to communist East Berlin in 1981 it would have been ’84 and Edinburgh University. It didn’t work out how I had planned it and I ended up back in Belfast. I regretted not staying.

I suppose I should add that I spent an entire summer the year before in Brighton&Hove. That was an idyllic summer of freedom, hedonistic drug-taking, heavy drinking, going to rock concerts, nightclubs overlooking the beach like Subterfuge. Life was elsewhere in terms of Belfast and here I was in an anarchist arcadia for a few months.

It gave me a sense of life-is-elsewhere but that had already happened in life with a very early trip to East Berlin and if I am honest even a pilgrimage holiday to the French Catholic shrine of Lourdes in 1975 with my mother and sister. In Brighton&Hove there was freedom.

Photo to the right: Brighton Promenade

Brighton Promenade

David Keenan also makes a connection between Belfast and cold war-era Berlin. Can you explain why?

Berlin first hit my radar in the Spy That Came In From The Cold, which was actually shot in some parts around Smithfield down in Dublin.

The divided cities! That is why. I remember flicking through newspapers and magazines in the early 70s looking at how my city was portrayed in The Observer or Sunday Times. The map guides to Belfast with its orange and green zones which in terms of style were later mirrored by the maps that explained divided Beirut, another divided place that I spent some time in during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Berlin first hit my radar in the Spy That Came In From The Cold, which was actually shot in some parts around Smithfield down in Dublin. The Wall fascinated me and I remember asking my aunt Peggy to get me a picture of the barrier the next time she was in West Berlin. She was living in W.Germany since 1966 and had married a Rhinelander. Their long happy marriage has personified post-war reconciliation. Her father, my grandfather Henry, was killed in a German U boat attack in the North Atlantic in 1943; her husband Fred’s father died in a British bombing raid in the war. (Discover David Keenan’s reference in the Guardian).

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald’s grandfather also Henry McDonald who was killed in Battle of Atlantic 1943

grandfather Henry McDonald killed in Battle of Atlantic 1943

If Two Souls were to be filmed, how do you imagine Berlin?

I think in any film version of ‘Two Souls’ the Berlin aspect would be imagined so to speak

I set my first novel in Berlin, a crime thriller and a character who is a ‘divided soul’ himself, half English, half German. I want to return to him and his stories again one day. I think in any film version of ‘Two Souls’ the Berlin aspect would be imagined so to speak; it would try to convey the interior thoughts of Ruin in tracking shots through desolate streets that lead to the Wall or into seedy pubs and rock venues.

With the soundtrack of ‘Low’, you would see the image of Bowie dissolving into windows and walls as Ruin tried to picture him alone in West Berlin. Perhaps a sequence near the end or bolted into the final two chapters of Sabine, filmed on a cine-camera tracing her way through Berlin with camera in hand. Further dissolves from the Wall to the other Wall at Cupar Street that comes closest in resembling the old cold war barrier.

How different are you from the main character Robbie?

Robbie doesn’t escape, he doesn’t move to ‘get the fuck out’ as his father implores him. I did to an extent.

Robbie Ruin is someone I could have become but thankfully didn’t. He took the wrong road, he followed a herd into the abyss. Yet he too is a ‘divided soul’. There is a realisation towards the end of the book about the futility of the path chosen and its tragedy. I remember being thrilled by the ‘hit’ of the crowd, of the allure of violence and male belligerence.

Around 79-80 I became addicted to hooliganism and tribal belonging yet at the same time still kept going back to the punk ethos of anarchic indifference to sectarian categorisation. Part of going to the dark side, albeit temporarily, was fuelled by losing in love and the disorientation of that experience. It was no one’s fault. These things happen in your teenage years but it coloured my judgement and marked my decisions. This is normal as you grow up. What I wanted in “Two Souls” was to intensify these feelings into something more abnormal and sinister.

Robbie doesn’t escape, he doesn’t move to ‘get the fuck out’ as his father implores him. I did to an extent. That’s the difference between us.

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald in the mid-1980’s

Henry McDonald Belfast mid 1980's

If Robbie had been born in cold-war East Berlin, how do you feel he might have been different?

I would imagine Ruin in East Berlin would have been part of that rebellious and dangerous scene.

Here is an irony. The young couple embracing on the novel’s cover were two punks from Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin around 1984. They were taken by a West German photographer for a photo essay on the rebellious punk scene emerging in the DDR capital and how the communist authorities saw them as a threat to social order.

I would imagine Ruin in East Berlin would have been part of that rebellious and dangerous scene. Maybe he has an East Berliner alter ego whose story might have taken him from being part of a repressed youth cult to a witness to late cold war history to someone there when the protest movements started to muster up the courage and eventually help overthrow the regime. His end of communism would be a lot less lamented over compared to Ruin’s father in Belfast. Crucially, however, Berlin Ruin would have been more into passive resistance than revenge-stricken terrorism.

Photo to the right: Anne Frank Zentrum Mural Berlin, photo by Sarah Barrett

Anne Frank Zentrum Mural Berlin by Sarah Barrett

To what extent do you connect a life of violence to an environment such as Belfast?

A fanatic is more interested in YOU than HIMSELF.

The argot of paramilitarism was everywhere and even had its own nicknames. Guns were ‘rods’ or ‘shorts’ or ‘barkers.’ Bombs were ‘up-and-unders’ or ‘smokey-joes’. Murders were ‘napperings’, being ‘clipped’, ‘wasted’, ‘iced’ etc. Any operation whether be a robbery or a shooting or a bomb attack could be a ‘job’. Even in language there was no escape from war.

Revenge, personal and communal, was and is a highly underestimated factor in propelling young men into violence.

I saw distant relatives who had to flee their home in south Belfast right at the start of the Troubles being radicalised over their humiliation and intimidation by local loyalists around 1970. I knew of friends who were beaten up, slapped and humiliated by police and troops moving in that same direction. In the novel, though the humiliation is very personal; Sabine’s father has a look of smug triumph on his face when he catches Robbie’s eyes as he leaves the burger bar after being told the love affair is now over just like that bucolic summer of 78. Unfortunately, and this is the curse of our time, Robbie cannot forget that expression of satisfaction from Sabine’s dad. It leads to tragic consequences as time and the Troubles go on.

However, we should not underestimate either the role of ideology. There are always the ideologues who influence the others as is the case with the character of Trout who is a true believer. When I think about Trout I always remember a comment the late Israeli writer Amos Oz made during a lecture in Britain in the early 2000s: “A fanatic is more interested in YOU than HIMSELF.” The capitals in the quote are mine because this line has haunted me from the moment I heard Oz utter it on BBC Radio 4. Trout is a missionary who is always on the lookout for new believers like him. I wanted the prison comms section of the book to sound meticulous, convincing and grinding like a machine scraping against a wall, inexorably weakening the barrier and breaking it down.

Photo to the right: Tennent Street Belfast early 1970s, Photo courtesy of The Northern Ireland Historical Photographical Society

Tennent Street Belfast early 1970s, Photo courtesy of The Northern Ireland Historical Photographical Society

When you consider the effects of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, how do you feel it has served you as a writer and/or as a person?

Ghosts are everywhere in ‘Two Souls’. I would argue that in a sense it is a ghost story. Do you agree?

I would like to think that if I had grown up in Tunbridge Wells and had an equal passion from an early age to write and create imaginary worlds, characters, plots etc I would have found equal inspiration in my background, area, circumstances. It would though be delusional to ignore the enormous shadow Belfast and the Troubles cast on my development as a writer. Oddly I started writing as a child mainly terrifically weird Sci-fi stories including the invention of the machine that would help our side gain victory in the Troubles. I even sketched out a blueprint of this mechanical destruction device on a blank page during one very boring Saturday afternoon inside my grandmother’s place in Divis Flats in the early 1970s. I suppose the influence there was the explosion of sci-fi dystopian TV programmes during that decade as well as Dr Who.

I remember feeling a sense of impending global doom in the 70s and the threat of nuclear winter or ecological destruction. But many of the scenes from “Two Souls” are rooted in actual Troubles’ events from the Subbuteo league tournaments during gun battles to the many instances of so-called punishment shootings and their aftermath that I witnessed first-hand. The latter can be directly linked to the scene when the hood or ordinary decent criminal Paki is left wounded and bleeding in the alleyway behind Ruin’s house. The sense of menace I tried to convey in those mini odysseys through ‘enemy territory’ taken by Ruin and his Red Army comrades in the book was real not imagined.

It even haunts the next book where the Troubles and the First World War conjure up ghosts. Ghosts are everywhere in ‘Two Souls’. I would argue that in a sense it is a ghost story. Do you agree?

As for me as a person, I think it would take an army of psychiatrists or counsellors to work that one out! I firmly believe our generation has been scarred psychologically by the conflict although the dark irony is that this ‘trauma’ seems to become inflicted on the next generation after us. One of the most important stories I wrote over the last few years for the Guardian concerned the revelation that more people had taken their lives from a 20-year period of peace AFTER the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 than during the actual Troubles. And many of these poor people were in the under 25 age bracket, many of them only babies or not even born when the 1998 peace accord was signed effectively drawing a line under the conflict.

Photo to the right: Belfast mural by Kevin Smith

Belfast mural by Kevin Smith

What first attracted you to Berlin East and West?

Ideology was the attraction back then although there was a lot of hedonistic fun too.

Actually I was in East Berlin as a 17-year-old callow Young communist in 1981. I was in a communist youth group working with the East German FDJ. We lived in an international tented village and our neighbours in the camp including comrades from Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam as well eurocommunist parties from Spain and Italy.

I remember playing badminton one morning before we went to work with a former Vietnamese soldier who spoke French. He had a scar under his eye and he explained it was from a wound during clashes with the Chinese in the war two years earlier. Work, by the way, was digging up old kilometre stones on the Moscow to Berlin railway and replacing with new shiny plastic ones. Ideology was the attraction back then although there was a lot of hedonistic fun too.

Four years later I went back to the city but this side in the west. I travelled by boat and train to West Berlin because I wanted to check out its thriving alternative music scene and retrace the steps of David Bowie who arrived there in the 70s to create some of his most interesting work. If truth be told I was also there to take a look at the ‘other side.’

Two years later I returned again while on interrail and had what I suppose was an epiphany moment. On the slow run from West Germany into Berlin our train crawled through the DDR and when we slid into Potsdam I saw behind the wire Young men playing volleyball who all stopped playing to stare into our carriage. I remember their faces, they were full of envy because they knew that this group inside the train, beyond the wire, could go anywhere they pleased that summer whilst they couldn’t. I kept seeing their faces on my journeys from Berlin West all day down to Italy, the Greek Islands and eventually back to Paris. I realised how lucky I was!

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald in DDR 1981 East Berlin on our camp with some Irish comrades 1981..me the child on the far left

Henry McDonald in DDR 1981 East Berlin on our camp with some Irish comrades 1981..me the child on the far left

What are your strongest memories of your time in East Berlin?

Nightly discos after back-breaking work on the rail line

In the East, it was the youth camp, the nightly discos after back-breaking work on the rail line, the cheap beer, the girls and Abba’s Lay All Your Love On Me, which seemed to be on the turntable every night. The camp was far away from the Wall (deliberately) but it would always come into view especially when at weekends we slipped away on the S Bahn from Kopenick station and into Berlin Mitte.

The West always seemed to be a million miles away too. There were these verdant green spaces beyond the Wall before you saw buildings and houses on the other side. It depended of course on where you were in the east but I rarely got a glimpse of the West except for the pointed star of Mercedes Benz shining on top of the Europa Centre building, which was visible near the Brandenberg Gate. in East Berlin?

Photo to the right: Berlin wall grafitti

Berlin wall grafitti

You have returned to Berlin a number of times since the Wall came down – do you feel the scars of the past have been healed?

The “tears” that once scarred its body were no longer so stark and glaring

I returned to Berlin many times but lived and worked there in 2005 on a George Wiedenfeld bursary, the Anglo-German International Journalist Programme. It was a good time to be there as the World Cup was being hosted by united Germany the following summer. I worked at Welt am Sonntag in the Springer which used to tower over the Wall if you took a right down Zimmer Strasse beyond Checkpoint Charlie.

There were other times when I made brief visits back to Berlin such as in the mid-1990s to visit an old East Berlin friend of mine, a medical student at the time we shared a house in Dublin and he is now a surgeon. Back then the east where he lived still had that DDR feel about it but by 2005 you could see the city’s wounds which have been stitched back together were fading, the “tears” that once scarred its body was no longer so stark and glaring. There was a new confidence about the place especially as it was looking forward to the World Cup in 2006 and hosting the final. I noticed less DDR-Ostalgia than I did in 1994.

Photo to the right: Berlin Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Brandenburg Gate

How was Belfast in the early days after the Good Friday Agreement?

The divisions were still not being seriously addressed. Nor have they been since.

My city was still on edge, nervous but relieved that the Troubles really did appear to be coming to a close. Of course, that was before the carnage of Omagh which I reported on for the Observer and Guardian that dreadful weekend. The walls were still up, the sectarianism was still in the air, the divisions were still not being seriously addressed. Nor have they been since.

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald in Belfast 2019, photo © Bobbie Hanvey

Henry McDonald Belfast photo © Bobbie Hanvey

If you were to tell a first time visitor to Belfast how it was during the Troubles versus now, how would you describe the most important differences?

Even during the Troubles there remained a good social life in the centre, which people regarded back then as neutral space.

The fear is no longer prevalent. The fear of the car slowly tracking beside you on the road. The fear that that suspiciously parked vehicle might contain a bomb that could go off as you pass by. The fear that your trip to a betting shop or a bar could be your last if it was one of your regular haunts that were targeted. All that has lifted more or less.

The ring of Steel thrown around the city centre with soldiers and civilian workers searching you going into major thoroughfares to thwart commercial bombíng attacks has disappeared. The absence of British army foot patrols on the streets.

What still exists are the majority of those glorious misnomers known as the ‘peace walls’. They remain in place dividing communities in north and west Belfast with a couple of others in the east of the city. That is the abnormal city.

The normal is the city centre with its new hotels, award-winning restaurants, gleaming glass skyscrapers, tourist traps, cruise ships (pre lockdown) and busy bars. Even during the Troubles there remained a good social life in the centre, which people regarded back then as neutral space.

In fact, I would argue that among the héroes of the Troubles, the real héroes, were those men and women who kept nightlife and socialising going during the darkest years. The hoteliers, the publicans, the café owners etc…they all deserve medals and recognition for keeping the pursuit of simple pleasures alive in that period. One of my favourite characters in Troubles literature is the hotel owner in Brian Moore’s brilliant novel ‘Lies of Silence.’ He personifies the decent centre of Belfast history: non-ideological; non-sectarian; anti-violence and in love with real life. In a way, the Belfast of today – especially the commercial centre – represents the triumph of ordinary men and women like him.

Photo to the right: Belfast Christmas market

Belfast Christmas market

Why was Hove important during your youth?

Hove was a refuge and a turning point.

Hove was a refuge and a turning point. A refuge because we had life long friends there who offered us a holiday away from the awfulness of an Ulster summer in 1977.

A turning point because it was there that I saw my first punk rockers and bought my first ever single, the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. I spent more summers there in the 80s and it became a place where I grew as a teenager and where I on my own could escape Belfast during those fractious violent summers connected to the annual marching season.

Photo to the right: Hove by Metro Centric

Hove

What brought you back to live in Hove?

As I get older I need to be near the sea more and more.

Two reasons: work and London. My job spec at the Guardian changed in 2018 just before I was double-whammied with a congenital heart defect and cáncer! I was asked to move from being Ireland Correspondent to senior UK national reporter, which meant having to work out of the London office. Fair enough. It was to be based in the heart of economic and political power BUT working in London is different from living there. I had no desire to live in London having done that back in the early 90s when I was younger and fitter.

It was a no brainer to move to Hove, rent a house near a train station (Aldrington), close to my old haunts and, crucially, would be only a short walk to the sea. As I get older I need to be near the sea more and more.

When I lived in north London in the early 90s the sea and the mountains were the things I missed about Northern Ireland the most aside from my family of course! The commute is a pain but I regard it as a necessary ‘tax’ worth paying to live in a lovely haven on the south coast filled with good memories.

Photo to the right: Henry at Hove beach

Henry McDonald, Hove

Hove is featured in the opening chapter of the WW1 novel you are working on. Describe the setting, please.

It is 1915 and a character loosely based on my great grandfather…

The setting is the Hove shoreline, a bench not far from a block of flats where today there is a famous Italian café selling their own brand of ice cream. It is 1915 and a character loosely based on my great grandfather is swigging back a hip flask filled with an old Belfast whiskey. He is hoping to get mildly drunk before heading back to his battalion who are training for trench warfare in the south downs.

A small curious man sits down beside him and tries to strike up a conversation. He eventually persuades the Belfast man that he can draw him as he has a striking face including a battle scar he obtained in the Boer War. It is an entirely imaginary encounter that ends up in a pub beside Hove Station that still exists to this day.

The Little man sketches my great grandfather and explains that he is a poet as well as a painter. The sketch he eventually sends to my great-granddad will become a leitmotiv down through our family’s history. The man he sits, drinks with and poses for was the greatest war poet of them all, Isaac Rosenberg. It has to be stressed that this chance meeting was fictional.

Photo by: Isaac Rosenberg / Self-portrait in the Public domain

Isaac Rosenberg self-portrait

You and I have both spent a good amount of time in Nerja. How does it inspire and affect you?

The shimmering sun on the sea and the specks representing fishing boats

It rejuvenates me every time I go back there. I used to own an apartment there but sadly no more. No matter. I still go back at least once a year.

For me, the perfect day starts with a stroll up and down Burriana Beach, preferably with the wáter of the Med being warm enough to walk barefoot in as the waves lap the sand. Then a cup of café con leche at Trop y Sol or else in town at one of the terraced cafes near the church of San Salvador.

I love the smells of the wildflowers along the walls and the rocks. The birdsong. The shimmering sun on the sea and the specks representing fishing boats far out on the horizon. The lazy cats curled up asleep in shaded áreas hiding from the crushing Andalusian sun. I miss it all.

Photo to the right: Nerja Burriana Beach

Nerja Burriana Beach

If you had been born in Nerja, do you feel that your life would have been different?

I think if I had been born there I would be writing about ancient myths, hidden Roman treasure or Moorish ghosts.

Yes, because I think I would have had been more in touch and appreciative of nature compared to my urban self here.

One thing I get particularly on longer visits to places like Nerja or up in Murcia at Mar Menor is the way people let the various rhythms of the seasons set the pace of their lives. People there seem to structure their life around the way the seasons turn. Every season has its delights and pleasures from the Feast of the Three Kings just after Christmas to Semana Santa (my favourite time of the year) to the summer festivals and the BBQs by the beach at Burriana when it feels like an entire nation has gone on their holidays.

I think if I had been born there I would be writing about ancient myths, hidden Roman treasure or Moorish ghosts. The word sensual would also be important..always. Life by the Med is sensual.

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald in Nerja wearing the Cliftonville colours

Henry McDonald in Nerja wearing the Cliftonville colours

Q: Last but not least, how do you feel about creative/environmental programs to heal divisions like those in Northern Ireland?

“The divisions were still not being seriously addressed. Nor have they been since……When we read or hear about the toxicity of Troubles legacy I firmly believe this is where the arts, culture, historical inquiry can provide the antidote.”

As regards creativity and the arts as a counter to ongoing divisions in N.Ireland I think there is one important thing to stress. When we read or hear about the toxicity of Troubles legacy I firmly believe this is where the arts, culture, historical inquiry can provide the antidote.

Rather than more lawyers to demand public-funded inquiries into this atrocity or that controversial killing or indeed an overarching process, I would argue that confronting our violent past is best served by media such as history, journalistic investigation, cinema, drama, novels, poetry etc. What all of these genres have in common are two keywords: complexity and empathy. Historians or writers, for example, deal with complex matters not the agitprop soundings of politicians or bombast of members of the legal profession.

They also have to approach the painful subject matter with empathy and understanding. I am currently listening to the audio version of ‘Birdsong’, Sebastian Faulks WW1 masterpiece while reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s outstanding book on the Battle of the Somme. This is to help me in my research for my own novel partly based on the experiences of my great grandfather Samuel at the Somme and later the Third Battle of Ypres. What both these great works provide is complexity and empathy. In regard to the latter, the authors even find time and space to humanise the German side and paint these men as complex flesh and blood human beings as the British soldiers on the allied lines.

This is the kind of approach we need to see happening but only organically in any attempt to deal with the past in Northern Ireland.

Think of the impact of Frank McGuinness’ “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” This groundbreaking play written by a Donegal Catholic writer about a generation of Ulster Protestants in the Great War was probably the first time that Dublin and other theatre audiences saw this population upfront, in three dimensional forms, in all their complexities and contradictions. I would argue that this play, which I re-read once more during the lockdown, did more to deepen north-south, nationalist-unionist understanding than a thousand seminars or conferences ever did.

So yes, the creative industries to use a very 21st-century cultural term can play a vital part in helping face these divisions and the toxic Troubles legacy. But they should only do so in an unstructured, free, almost anarchic fashion and should be free from the influence of politicians, lawyers or worse still so-called “human rights activists.”

Photo to the right: Henry McDonald, lead singer in his 80s band, The Flea Circus – Look at the banner behind the band – YOUTH AGAINST SECTARIANISM

Henry McDonald Belfast The Flea Circus

Click on the photo below to buy Two Souls

Disclosure: Travel Inspires has not been paid for this interview and makes no money from book sales
Two Souls by Henry McDonald
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How Belfast, Berlin, Nerja and Hove Inspired Author & Guardian Journalist Henry McDonald

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