John Betjeman once said "Childhood is measured out by sounds, smells and sights before the dark age of reason grows".
I read that tonight, Thursday 9th April 2020, the horns in Belfast Harbour are to sound, for the first time in 20 years, in tribute to our NHS and other front line staff who are coping with the Covid19 virus pandemic. This made me think of times past when the horns blew every New Year's Eve and could clearly be heard in our backyard at Mountcollyer Avenue in North Belfast.
Other sounds of the city come to mind too. Down the back entry came the rag man shouting "Any oul rags, any oul rags?". If you gave him your torn pillowcases, towels and other unusable materials you would get a delph mug in exchange, or sometimes coal-brick was offered, a sort of sooty firelighter. The crash of one, or in a good week, two bags of coal or slack being deposited in the coal-hole, hoisted on the shoulders of a grimy coalman who fortunately never came on a Monday. The squeaking of the mangle in granny's yard, yes, she did have one, and the plaintive miaou of Toodles at the kitchen window enable me to picture that Belfast parlour house where I grew up. Not forgetting the swoosh as the aforesaid parlour ceiling fell, unstable as a result of wartime bombing weakening the plaster.
The radio was an important source of entertainment in the Avenue. On wet Sundays after lunch we listened to Round the Horne, Educating Archie, and Paul Temple with its distinctive theme music, Coronation Scot, the most requested piece of music around that time. Riders of the Range was a favourite and when I had the good fortune to visit Tombstone, Arizona, I could imagine Freddie Phillips and the Sons of the Saddle playing Ghost Riders in the Sky as I watched the shootout at the OK Corral. On Saturday mornings the day didn't start properly until Uncle Mac (Hello Children, Everywhere) played Polka Dot Bikini, Runaway Train, Max Bygraves' I'm a Blue Toothbrush, you're a Pink Toothbrush, and Danny Kaye's Thumbelina or Ugly Duckling.
Then there was the sound of Dad's key in the door at 5.30pm, Mum's knitting needles clacking away, or the crackling of newspaper as she coaxed the fire to "take". My brother's crying for the first two years of his life that drove all of us demented. The school bell in the morning when you were still in Alexandra Park Avenue, not lined up with the rest of the class and facing Captain Reed with his bendy bamboo cane. And the bell again at 3.30pm that released you from a double period of sums. The discordant crash of the piano keys as your sleepy head hit them when trying to catch up on practice you had neglected in favour of reading The Beano or The Eagle. And the jingle of the one shilling and sixpence you handed over to Mrs Best that she charged for the torture you (and she) went through twice a week.
City sounds were exchanged in the summer months when I went to stay at my Hanna cousins' farm near Saintfield. Cows, chickens, sheep, pigs all unheard in Belfast Streets. The clanking of milk churns and the roar of the tractor, the swish of a water bucket dipping into the well, and birdsong as you carried them back over the fields were new pleasures. These country sounds I endeavoured to replicate by bringing home a live chicken in a shopping bag and told my mother I was going to keep it in the yard. She disagreed, thinking of Sunday lunch, and the last sound the chicken made was when having its neck wrung in the corner shop by the strong wrists of Bertie the Bicycle Man.