Notes from an author: Wendy Erskine on cafes and culture in Belfast

In a city that’s no stranger to change and upheaval, there’s comfort to be found in the familiarity of the past.

Friday, 15 May 2020,
By Wendy Erskine
Wendy Erskine is the author of the short story collection Sweet Home, in which many of the characters frequent ...

Wendy Erskine is the author of the short story collection Sweet Home, in which many of the characters frequent cafes of various sorts in Belfast.

Photograph by Wendy Erskine

Some years ago, my very radical friend would talk about how, in the future, people — well, women in particular — would be relieved from the burden of domestic drudgery by the mass creation of workers’ cafes, where we would all eat. This idea, it seemed to me, ran counter to the notion of cooking as creative and enjoyable, so I asked when it would be that the workers’ cafes became operational. “I can’t put a date on revolution!” he said.

While we still do wait for that revolution, a trip to John Long’s Fish and Chips on Athol Street may be in order. Down a quiet little street of offices and car parks is a three-storeyed brick building. On the upper floors there are no windows; on the ground floor, the glow of yellow light coming through meshed windows leads you to the takeaway and the restaurant. Inside, it’s all rather utilitarian: the floor is terrazzo, speckled black and white. On the walls, there are a few black-and-white photos of Belfast landmarks, plus a couple of framed newspaper articles about the cafe. Customers are afforded a degree of privacy in the high-backed booths made out of dark, varnished wood. Everything is clean, spare, polished. Each table is unadorned marble-effect Formica, and on each one there’s a salt cellar and a square-cut bottle of brown vinegar.

The place has been around for over a century, and it has a chequered past. It was opened in 1914, when John Long took part of his grocery business and converted it into a fish and chip shop. At that time, the Athol Street area would have been bustling with workers employed in the nearby linen factories. The second owner, Walter Titrington, relocated the shop to its present location, just a few yards further down the street. He was responsible for having the notable Formica fittings installed. During the Troubles, John Long’s proximity to a local police station meant that its windows were liable to sustain damage — hence the addition of the metal mesh covers, which are still there today.

Although Belfast remains a complex place, still subject to old centrifugal forces, it’s an exciting city and one that’s constantly changing. Places that were hotspots a couple of decades ago are now covered in billboards advertising the latest club nights somewhere else. The new centre of attraction is the Cathedral Quarter, which is set to undergo a £500 million regeneration scheme; the first phase is due to begin soon. John Long’s, however — despite changes to its menu to include gluten-free fish suppers and its new licence to serve beer and wine — remains for many an example of the historic, arguably more characterful, Belfast.

In my short story collection, Sweet Home, many of the characters frequent cafes of various sorts in Belfast. There are two teenage girls who regularly gossip about school and boyfriends in their local noodle bar. There’s the local hood and his wife for whom the waiter must improvise a wine bucket out of a vase. A grandmother and granddaughter, when visiting their relative in jail, break their journey by calling at a coffee shop that has always just run out of something. There’s even a story that takes place entirely in a cafe run by a church and a mental health organisation. This particular cafe offers a kind of sanctuary to those who work there; it’s a haven, albeit one of a mundane kind.

A cafe or restaurant can be a place of gentle rituals: placing an order, waiting, the meal being set before you, paying. John Long’s, particularly, is a place whose cleanness, sparseness and gentle order is a million miles from the chaos of my own kitchen. And the food hasn’t even had a mention yet. Tea is served in a plain white mug; there’s no teapot. The bread is white and sliced. As for the fish and chips, I offer no elaborate comment on the extraordinary freshness of the amazing carapace of batter, because that wouldn’t be very John Long’s. I’ll just say that the fish and chips are as great as anyone could hope them to be.

Wendy's tip: A recommended haunt is the American Bar, an old bar near the docks that now hosts music and poetry events.

Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home, published by Stinging Fly Press. RRP: £12.99

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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