A couple of weeks ago during a random trip to Omagh (the same trip I was “encouraged” by a story of a woman who ended up marrying her dead best friend’s husband and mothering their children… There’s hope for all of us, eh?!?), I learned of the latest attempt of Northern Ireland’s tourist board to ‘reclaim’ some of the famous people and things born and bred in Northern Ireland. We have clawed back the Titanic (that majestic, unsinkable, sunken ship) and now we’re taking back C.S “Jack” Lewis, if you please.
In Omagh, I was told of a CS Lewis bus tour around his hometown Belfast that had been running over the summer and would terminate on 14th September. I loved the recent adaptation to film of the Narnian tale of Prince Caspian and have recently been inspired to re-read the whole series, so I decided I would invite some friends on the adventure of the CS Lewis Belfast Bus Tour.
It all started out well – with a cup of coffee in a warm cafe, but then we got on the bus… A quick flashback to a general Belfast Bus Tour that I took a few years back with a South African friend where the tour guide (his name was Billy until we got to the Falls Rd where he changed it to “Liam”) declared that the History of the Irish and Irish History are two very different things! You see, the first half hour of said CS Lewis bus tour was somewhat tenuous to say the least.
The tour started at the Linen Hall Library where we were treated to lots of historical detail about the Linen factory that used to be on the site where the City Hall is currently. All very interesting, but… eh… what’s that got to do with CS Lewis?? Jack. Well… okay, it was because his father worked in it or knew someone that worked at it or something, but, still. It hardly boded well for the £8 spent.
The sticky-floored bus chugged its way down Royal Avenue, which was beginning to look like a more favourable way to spend a Sunday afternoon than hearing random unrelated-to-cs-lewis stories. However, I kept my cynicism at bay and when the tour came to a stop at Writers’ Square in the Cathedral Quarter I fair skipped off the bus to hoping to hear something a little more exciting.
No such luck.
Apparently CS Lewis’s father had a wedding reception at a hotel that no longer exists near this site because his office was in the building that stood just over there before they demolished it and built that new one. Oh. Right.
By the time we were standing on a muddy grass verge between a road and an ugly block of 1970s flats considering how CS Lewis’s brother stood on ‘this very spot’ to pick moss off the ground, or how a scout troop were over there in ‘that very spot’ (not that building of course – the one that got demolished to put that one up) when CS Lewis’s death was not announced, I was concentrating more and on poking holes in the soft ground with my golf umbrella and a rather cynical blogpost was beginning to brew.
I’m not entirely sure what I had been expecting, especially since I knew “Jack” Lewis had spent most of his life in England, however I was still most unimpressed.
Then we went to Little Lea, the house in which CS Lewis grew up. Its privately owned now and we could only stand at the bottom of the driveway and peer through the foliage at its intriguing roofing and large windows. And then as the guide began to explain the young Jack’s life exploring the long corridors and dusty attics of the house, this is really where I began to be transported into the story. On this very spot.
For those of you who haven’t read the Chronicles of Narnia, the first book in the series is The Magician’s Nephew and it begins in the context of a series of attics, the second book (first one written I think) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins in the context of children exploring long corridors in a big old house… Suddently I ached to be allowed into that house, to see with my own eyes the corridors, the wooden floorboards, the creaking attics where once upon a time a young boy sat writing stories of talking animals in an imaginary world of his own creating.
From then on, I was hooked. I hardly noticed when the guide postulated on many a thing tenuously linked to CS Lewis’s grandmother’s step-brother’s dog’s handkerchief… My imagination was in overdrive. When we drove up into the grounds of Campbell College where Lewis attended school, I could see him as a young child trudging up the tree-lined avenue towards another humdrum day at school, pausing in the snow to contemplate an old-fashioned gas lamp light; I could see Mr Tumnus hurrying past that lamppost with his brown paper packages; I could see Lewis seeing Lucy seeing Mr Tumnus seeing Lucy…
Now, I know he didn’t write those stories whilst walking to school in Belfast, or didn’t model Aslan purely on the brass door knob of the Rectory at St Mark’s Church, but I love that he really did grow up in Belfast and that there really are places in the city where we could say CS Lewis stood on “this very spot”…
I love that there is something about places where memories are created, that there are smells we smell, sounds we hear, sights we see that transport us from the here and now to times gone by, to stories long finished and loves long lost. I love it.
And I love Belfast.
The tour finished with a gathering to contemplate Ross Wilson’s “The Searcher” CS Lewis sculpture at the Hollywood Arches where I devoured the attached letter from Jack to a little girl explaining the messages behind the pictures of The Chronicles of Narnia. All this reminds me how much I love the written word; the power it can have to evoke sights, smells and sounds we’ve never even encountered and yet make them our own… Incredible. To hear from his own pen Lewis’s desires for his books is to allow us to touch what he touched, smell what he smelled and walk where he walked in order to see what he saw and love it like he did.
A converted CS Lewis Bus Tour Cynic off to buy several CS Lewis books.