To Belfast

In 1985 I combined the Mount Saint Helens eruption with a self portrait playing my English Concertina to create a postcard image I called Concertina Blowout.

I arrived in Glasgow by train late in the day, bound for Belfast where I was expected. I remember thinking that this could be the last peaceful day I would have in a long time, the last day when I could do what I liked, go wherever I might choose, without consideration of any dangerous political ramifications. The scene outside my rainy window matched my mood. Desolation. The train clattered through filthy industrial parks, littered fields, broken down Victorian factory buildings and shabby streets.

It was 1981, and outside Belfast, in Long Kesh Prison Bobby Sands was approaching his sixtieth day on hunger strike. If he were to die there would undoubtedly be fire and shootings, bombs and riots in the streets of Belfast. I’d done enough research to understand The Troubles in Northern Ireland from a dissociated, rather academic viewpoint. It looked like I would soon have firsthand experience of the realities of the IRA struggle against the Thatcher government.

It was easy to be gloomy in Glasgow, after having spent a month prowling the more upscale streets of Edinburgh. Between stints with a wire brush, cleaning gutters and painting for my hosts, I had earnestly searched the tourist precincts and alleyways for my dream instrument, an English concertina. It was a search doomed to failure. I came to recognize that even if I were to find one in Edinburgh, a working English concertina was bound to be far beyond my pauper’s budget. The closest I had come to finding any at all was in a junk store on a back street where I was offered a beautiful wooden ended concertina that looked like an chorus line of elephants had tapped danced across it wearing pitons.

Over the last few years I had developed a taste for Celtic music, listening to The Chieftains on LP records I would pick up in Seattle music stores, tuning in to Fiona Ritchie on The Thistle and the Shamrock, attending concerts by The Battlefield Band and various solo artists. The fiddle and the whistle, the bodhran and the bouzouki appealed to me, but the sound I enjoyed the most was that of the concertina. So when I planned my trip to Ireland, one of my goals was to find a good concertina I could take home with me. I found out that the English concertina was a chromatic instrument I could use to play virtually any type of music. That was what I wanted! But I surrendered that dream as I rode the train to Glasgow.

I would spend only one night in Glasgow, dragging my luggage from the station through drab canyons of looming brick tenements past vacant shops, tiny tobacco and candy kiosks, roundabouts with cars and trucks hurtling by. I would have to make the same trek in reverse to catch my train in the morning. It was late in the day now, shops were closing and the streets were going empty. It didn’t look like the type of neighborhood I should be hanging out in after dark with all my possessions in tow.

I took a breather in front of the metal grill protecting the display window of a tiny music shop. Gleaming electric guitars and a drum set with bright brass cymbals filled the little window. Taped to the glass were notices of rock band concerts, tattered xeroxed postings. There was an index card advertising guitar lessons, written in sloppy ill-formed letters.But in the lower left corner of the window, tucked in against the wall, was a worn black English concertina with silver ends. A hand-lettered card was propped up against it: £50. It works.

I was stunned. Hastily, frantically, I dug out my little notebook and pen. I wrote down the address, the opening time for the shop. I didn’t want to walk away from that window, but it was getting dark and I still had a number of blocks to go before I would reach the Youth Hostel. As I dragged my bag away, I resolved to be back when the shop opened.

There weren’t many people staying at the Youth Hostel. In the morning I shared an otherwise empty dining room with a middle-aged English couple and their teenaged son. He was strapped into a wheelchair, his head sagging on a limp neck. The father chatted amiably about the daily news with his wife, sometimes directing comments towards his son. I don’t know if the boy understood anything, but the parents treated him as if he did. The mother spooned oatmeal into her son’s mouth, patiently rescuing the bits that tumbled back onto his chin.

After breakfast I hurried off to pack up again and I dragged my bags back to the music store. I was there when a scrawny rocker with a beard unlocked the door, giving me a suspicious glance. When I headed straight for the concertina, he understood immediately. He gave me a seat on a guitar amp so I could run through the worn silver buttons. Noise came out, as required. I couldn’t play the thing, though, so I really didn’t know if it worked properly. I figured I couldn’t kick its tires, but I inspected the scuffed leather of the bellows, the dulled nickel scrolling of the end plates, the hand straps that were so well used they were ready to come apart. Then I gave the lad some money and I walked out the door carrying the concertina is an old leather-lined case with split out corners.

A few blocks farther on an older man approached me, dressed like you might expect an English farmer to be: woolen waistcoat, flat hat, a jacket with lots of pockets. He was looking lost. Ironically, he chose to ask directions of an Eastern Washington farmboy who would only ever visit Glasgow for a few hours. Even more shockingly, I was able to give him the directions! The moment is a priceless memory for me. He began his question, “Would you know the way to the Buchanan Street Station…” but his eyes suddenly lighted on the box, “…and can you really play that squeezebox?” In the daylight, toting my prize and with a friendly companion, Glasgow didn’t look so bad anymore.

He was the first person I got to tell the story of my quest. We walked to the station together, and before we parted he solemnly cautioned me not to leave my belongings anywhere. They would be stolen in an instant. His warning brought me back to earth. Not that I would have left my belongings anywhere, but this last leg of the train trip was taking me towards the uncertain and possibly dangerous city of Belfast, a city on the verge of rage.

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