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Anne Hailes: A visitor's eye view of Belfast, the Grand Opera House reopens and how to defeat a curse...

Belfast man Tim Shaw, one of the UK's leading sculptors, with Lifting the Curse

TO see ourselves as others see us is a risky business. So I was fascinated to hear the opinions of my brother and his wife who spent four days in Belfast last week.

The wind was howling and the rain sleeting down and I was worried about their journey from Edinburgh via Cairnryan and over the sea to Belfast.

Surely they would be battered and bruised by the time they reached the safety of a warm house and a bowl of broth. But no, the North Channel was apparently like a mill pond so it was a good start.

Arriving at 5.30pm wasn't a great idea, tackling the West Link traffic did have its drawbacks, but on a positive note by then the sun was shining and the air was warm.

That was Friday; on Saturday a visit to Belfast city centre was scheduled, ending up with a few hours spent in St George's Market - a first for them, and what a good choice. "Fantastic" was the verdict.

This market is magic for both visitor and local alike. Something for everyone, and they were fascinated at the variety of goods on display and the history of the area, the plaques on the walls telling of the original market where fruit and vegetables were piled so high ladders had to be employed to reach the top; however, onions were scarce so women used leeks instead and leek and bacon was a favourite dish. There's an idea.

Their baskets were lined with straw to keep the fresh eggs safe and butter was taken from a big pot and shaped into pats which were stamped then wrapped in paper.

::It Was Also An Emergency Mortuary

After one raid during the Blitz of April 1941, 225 bodies were brought to the market; 151 were identified, only 92 were claimed by relatives and taken away for burial.

Today it's a thriving hub of shopping and entertainment, as my visitors discovered.

"We had a great time and it was a pleasure to meet Robert Jamison." He of the Your Home Made Perfect TV programme and apparently the craic was great.

"And I've never seen so many vibrant young people out and about enjoying the sunshine, very different from Edinburgh streets. There are plenty of small shops when you're just walking around and have time to browse and buy.

"And," Johnny added, "your street art is amazing."

Altogether a very good resume of a place we tend to take for granted.

I'm only sorry Johnny and Roz couldn't stay for the re-opening of the Opera House last Wednesday with the sassy, sparkly, frenetic Six, the wives of Henry VIII each vying for the title of top dog.

It was sensational but there were two performances, one behind the footlights and one in front. The audience were mega, every new comfy seat taken, a huge cheer when the curtain went up and prolonged applause throughout the 80 minute singing and dancing show - it must have filled the heart of Ian Wilson and his staff with joy.

By the way, the competition ended with the girls reckoning that they were actually united because their husband is only remembered as the king with six wives.

::Lifting A Curse

This time last year Belfast man Tim Shaw, an award winning sculptor and one of the youngest members of the Royal Academy of Arts, was putting the finishing touches to his contribution to the prestigious London exhibition.

The subject was four Armagh Rhymers, or mummers; during his research for the quartet he met the rhymers at Christmas two years ago when they were performing on the Falls Road, Belfast.

"As we arrived in front of a terrace of houses, the mummers processed down the road, to form a ring on the grass. We looked across to the people who lived in those houses and they looked at us. There was a moment of acknowledgement that once we were on different sides of the sectarian divide. Then one person came over with an offering of mulled wine and biscuits. This moment of reconciliation, subconscious or otherwise was for me what gives depth and meaning to the rhyme and song of the mummers' tongue."

His interest began when, as a boy living on the Cavehill Road and buying sweets in the local newsagents, he saw a photograph on the front page of a newspaper of men in masks of straw and wondered what part of Africa they were from.

It sparked an interest which ended up with a 2019 series The Mummers' Tongue Goes Whoring Amongst The People and has lead onto greater things as his intention to scale up one of his foot-high mummers has come to fruition.

::Bad Losers

For this year's exhibition Tim has revisited one of the figures and developed a new work entitled Lifting the Curse, a response to the curse that artists Gilbert & George issued to the Academy when their work failed selection.

In a fit of pique their response left no-one in any doubt: "We herewith return our medals and certificates. We curse the Royal Academy and all its members."

"Whether these were flippant words or targeted toxic energy it's a serious business to curse someone," says Tim.

"As one of the cursed I feel an obligation to address this act with a robust response."

Fashioned from tree branches tied to a metal welded framework with a belly full of charcoal wrapped in blanket, a heart made from charred wood lacerated and bound in copper, Lifting the Curse is designed to absorb dark energy.

Tim,. who lives and works in Cornwall, added: "On the penultimate day of its completion a shamanic practitioner carried out a ritual connecting giving focus and potency to the grubby working as the old moon passed over to the new."

Apparently once the exhibition finishes in January Tim promises the entrails will be delivered to the river and burnt, transmuting negative into positive energy. I hope someone invites Gilbert & George.

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