Swimming

If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location.  And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct.  But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides.  On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.

I never learned to swim when I lived there.  My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.

When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush.  I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task.  The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.

Portrush c 1960
Portrush, circa 1960, with the Skerries to the north

When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto.  The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day.  Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming.  We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’.  The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.

My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer.  It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink.  When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.

It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive.  I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.

But for day after day, I struggled.  I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom.  Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.

Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it.  And once there, I discovered that I could dive.  It was a new element for me.  Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish.  An unforgettable experience.

HHV_images_tablet_1680x1080_Locations-Travel
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu (photo from internet)

In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc.  I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach.  And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf.  On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.

Bondi_Beach_Sydney_Australia_7
Bondi Beach, Sydney (photo from internet)

When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour.  In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool.  I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.

poolns
North Sydney swimming pool in recent years (photo from internet)

We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami.  After the initial surge of  enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month.  Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool.  I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.

I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits.  I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees.  I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers.  In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in.  I will never forget the shock of the cold water.  I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.

As with the weather, I don’t do cold.

That’s why I follow the sun…  🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Palladium

Portrush

circa June 1965

If you are ever in Portrush, on the north Irish coast, and you head down Causeway Street from the town centre, just before the Catholic church you will see St. Patrick’s Hall.  Now the building was not always connected with the church.  In my day, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was called The Palladium and it was a theatre, putting on variety shows during the brief holiday seasons of Easter and summer, when the resort used to be a tourist destination, before the tour companies started offering cheap holiday flights and hotels in the more reliable southern European sunshine.  For most of the year The Palladium was shuttered.

Before its transformation to a variety theatre, the Palladium was a ballroom, with a resident orchestra.  There was also Barry’s Ballroom.  With thousands of soldiers stationed in north Ulster, training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe, there must have been plenty of trade for the ballrooms and the local girls were very much in demand.  That was how my mother met my father in 1942.

I never heard my father speaking of playing at the Palladium.  He ended his military service in January of 1946 in Lübeck on the Baltic, having been involved in the fighting from the invasion of Normandy through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.   When he returned to Portrush, he got his professional opportunity as pianist with Ernie Mann’s band, then resident in Barry’s Ballroom.  When Ernie was forced to retire, due to ill- health, my father took over leadership of the band.

Ernie Mann band 1949
My father on the left, with the Ernie Mann Band in 1949
BBC broadcast July 1951
And at the piano with his own band during a BBC Radio broadcast in 1951

But by the early 1950’s, musical tastes were changing, with Bill Haley and His Comets and the jive displacing the formal quickstep and waltz and orchestras.  And then came Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles and the avalanche of groups with singer, lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums.  In Portrush, the Arcadia Ballroom opened in 1953 and Barry’s Ballroom closed around that time.  I don’t know what happened to the Palladium Ballroom, but I suspect that it had already ceased to operate.  My father moved his band to the Northern Counties hotel, and for many years they continued there.  He became very well-known and many times over the years, when they have heard my name, strangers have said to me, ‘you wouldn’t be Harry Blackwood’s son, would you now?’

03c500ad6097bb0abebae58ab4eda57d
The Arcadia, on what looks like a bleak stormy day (photo from internet)

I only ever once went to a show at the Palladium.  I think it was in the early summer of 1965, but I am not sure.  Neither can I remember clearly who I went with.  It may have been Trevor Gaston and Martin Williamson, but again it is all a blur.  You see, we went to a performance of Edwin Heath. the well-renowned hypnotist, and I fell asleep in the first few minutes of the show, when he was introducing his act and the entrancing music was playing in the background.  I was not the only one; those of us who succumbed were led up to the stage and we were the show for the next hour or so.

Edwin Heath
Edwin Heath, the hypnotist

I recall nothing.  Afterwards I learned that the ‘victims’ were commanded to react to many different out-of-character situations: acting as we were different animals, believing that a glass of water tasted foul or another strongly alcoholic etc., and in my case to imitate a well-known singer, singing a hit song.

Now singing in front of an audience, hypnotised or not, for me was nothing unusual; I was the drummer in Bill McKeown’s Group, appearing at various local hotels in the area and further afield in Belfast, Red Bay and the Giant’s Causeway.  We even had a six-week, Monday through Saturday, summer booking in a local hotel.  In addition to a full-time day job, it was hard work, playing from 20:00 to midnight and often much later. We were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and there was little competition in those days.  Bill was a talented pianist and saxophonist, his wife had a beautiful voice, his son was competent on the guitar.  In addition to drumming, I sang ballads.  When the client had sufficient budget, we included a bass guitar and trumpet, the latter being Tommy Tinkler, who was formerly in my father’s band and is in both photos above.

And in the Edwin Heath show, I sang the Jim Reeves hit song, ‘I love you because’, as I had many times before.

Today Portrush is but a shadow of what it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday crowds filled the hotels and boarding houses, staying for a week or more, when the beaches were crowded in the rare good weather, the amusement arcades were full and in the evening the centre of the tiny town was one big traffic jam and the pavements crowded.  These days, many of the former boarding houses have shut or have been converted into flats for the students from the nearby university.  And the steam trains that used to shuttle back and forth from Belfast, have long been retired and replaced by a tiny local commuter train, carrying students to their classes at the university in Coleraine.

c5811d6d2e0891c56eabedbf6a01b41d
One of the steam trains leaving Portrush, just as I remember them (photo from internet)

And all the former ballrooms have disappeared; Barry’s Ballroom was demolished and the area converted to more amusement machines; the Northern Counties Hotel was burned down in an arson attack and eventually replaced by a Ramada Inn; the Arcadia was largely demolished and only a part of the original building remains.

The Palladium
The former Palladium, as it is today

 

Of the four, only the Palladium still functions, albeit in its new role as a church hall.