The celebrated architect, Charles Lanyon, finding himself far too busy to bother with death, will be 199 years old on his next birthday. He is the world’s oldest living architect and, having never grown tired of drawing or building or undrawing or rebuilding, is personally responsible for approximately forty thousand free standing structures within the greater Belfast area.
(This number is a conservative estimate of course, and precludes Lanyon’s forthcoming “virtual Village,” project plus several dozen post-modern parking facilities designed by the anonymous, guerilla architect LCD, a moniker widely believed to be one of Lanyon’s many pseudonyms.)
Charles Lanyon and I are enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee in the Botanic Avenue premises of a local coffee house chain. Charles Lanyon is having a latte. I am saving the magazine twenty five pence by opting for the house drip. The back of Lanyon’s head is reflected in the mirror, also my front. My posture is terrible. I am glad I rarely see myself in a seated position.
“Well,” says Charles Lanyon, opening negotiations, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?”
I am nervous. I do not know how to hold my mouth. It feels like an undone shoelace. I can feel the customary hotness begin to spread across my breastbone. Charles Lanyon is a notoriously awkward interviewee.
(“It’s not like you’re interviewing him,” my colleague in Arts and Culture, has warned me, “It’s more like he’s interrogating you.”
“Bring some tissues,” added the assistant editor, “I heard he had the lady from the Tatler in tears.”
“Psshhh,” I replied, making a sound like a pair of disgruntled curtains, “It’s architecture. How difficult can it be?”
Thereupon the assistant ed gave the colleague from Arts and Culture a loaded look, suggesting, with one semi-raised eyebrow, a tactical retreat. They scurried off into the tea room with every intention of out moaning each other over the ginger snaps.
“I,” the assistant ed, no doubt began, “once interviewed Van Morrisson on an empty stomach.”
“ ’s nothing,” the colleague from Arts and Culture would hiss, “I covered the Balmoral show three years running…in heels.”
And on and on and on until the electric kettle emitted a climatic yelp, heralding a temporary tea cup sized truce.
At the magazine horrendous assignments past, present and future are commemorated on a weekly basis; rolled out for display like a series of second hand medals on Remembrance Sunday. )
Charles Lanyon is a 198 year old architect. I am an accomplished journalist with various certificates and an expensive notebook to prove it. I select a pen from my extensive arsenal of stolen stationary, pop it into a point and take the opportunity to formulate an opening question. Slickly bypassing the usual drivel- the ‘where did you grow up?’ and ‘what do you do for a living?’ and ‘isn’t this a great wee run of weather we’re having?’ sort of questions, which form the backbone of provincial journalism- I settle for something simple and wedge-shaped, a casual slide into the meatier material. Then, with tremendous professionalism, I draw my unlaced mouth into something roughly resembling a spade and begin digging.
“Best thing that’s happened to Belfast in the last hundred and ninety years?” I ask, casually offering him two thirds of a cellophane wrapped pack of bourbons. He declines with a slight inclination of his left palm.
“Easyjet,” he says and pauses for a mouthful of coffee, “It’s a lot easier to get out now…cheaper too.”
“Well, to be honest Mr. Lanyon…or is it Sir Lanyon now?”
(It seems inconceivable that, after 198 years and a mid-sized town’s worth of Victorian facades, Lanyon would still be sitting here, a mere Mister whilst the likes of Elton John found himself decorated for orchestrating the Lion King soundtrack.)
He doesn’t answer. He’s doodling all across the coffee table: floating skyscrapers, ten mile tunnels, underground fountains and what appears to be an underwater escalator.
I plough on regardless, “Mr. Lanyon, I think our readers were looking for something a little more architectural…a bridge perhaps, Stormont, the City Hall, even a leisure centre would do at a pinch.”
He plucks half a dozen sugar sachets from the bowl and balances them on the table top, forming a tiny, fairly-traded, Stonehenge approximately half way between our respective coffee cups.
“It doesn’t have to be one of your own,” I prompt. Any building would be fine. Even a road.”
“The Westlink,” he says.
I start to write this down.
“That was a joke,” he says.
I put a thin biro line through the Westlink. I take a long, slow sip of coffee. It’s already turning lukewarm in the cup. “Next time,” I tell myself, “I will take the Ideal Homes Exhibition. Anything’s better than covering the never dead.”
Lanyon interrupts my thoughts.
“I’ll tell you what really troubles me,” he says suddenly.
I pop the point on my pen to imply interest, “yes, Mr. Lanyon, what exactly really troubles you?”
“The electric doors at Connswater Tesco, they trouble me greatly. I think they’re on back to front or something. They only open from the inside. It’s no good…no good at all. When it’s raining you get soaked waiting for someone to come out and then you have to run through before the doors close. It’s not a dignified way to get your groceries…It really troubles me. Write that down, lady, maybe somebody will do something about it.”
I pretend to write this down. In reality I write my own name, slowly with loops. Our readers do not shop in Connswater Tesco.
“Great,” I say, struggling to keep the sarcasm in check, “Any other changes you might like to suggest Mr. Lanyon…apart from the doors at Connswater Tesco, of course?”
He stirs his coffee, three complete revolutions of the cup with a wooden stir stick.
“The parking spaces outside Marks and Spencers on the Newtownards Road are ridiculously tight. It’s a wonder people don’t get jammed in. And the Donegall Road has started to smell funny…not bad, just funny, like the inside of a hamster cage. The floor tiles in Castlecourt are far too slippery when it rains. And there are a disproportionately high number of murals featuring George Best. What about a nice one of Liam Neeson, maybe from when he was in Star Wars?”
I reach for my coat. I will venture on to Wikipedia when I return to the office and write a nice, retrospective piece, highlighting the monumental highs and lows of Lanyon’s career.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Lanyon,” I say, “Good to hear you’re still interested in Belfast, even after all these years.”
Charles Lanyon looks across the breadth of the coffee shop’s interior. He appears to be scrutinizing his reflection in the mirrored wall opposite. He sticks a finger in his mouth and, using his own saliva, sleeks first his right, then his left sideburn into submission. He checks the mirror again and smiles, satisfied with the results.
“The trouble with river cities,” he says, even though I haven’t asked, or even thought to ask, “Let me tell you about the trouble with river cities.”
“Right,” I say. I haven’t the slightest idea what Charles Lanyon means by this. I pause to consider the best way to escape quickly, fearing a further forty five minutes of elderly rambling. “What exactly is the trouble with river cities?”
“Well, young lady, there’s one unenviable constant flowing like a broken tap through every one of these unfortunate cities, Belfast included.”
I’m scribbling all this down, emphatically, in short hand: his posture, his timing, the thing with the sideburns, his slightly archaic turn of phrase. Our readers enjoy the work of local poets. This is exactly the kind of flowery shit they go for.
“Do continue,” I say, and some long-buried memory of my grandmother causes me to sweep my hand regally across the tabletop. Half way through the movement, somewhere approximately twelve inches above Stonehenge, I feel idiotic and snap my arm back into my side.
“What is the trouble with river cities?” I snap.
“Eventually everything sinks,” the celebrated architect Charles Lanyon replies, “Or flows far out to see and forgets. The trouble, my dear, is in telling the difference.”