Saturday, March 18, 2006

Kiss me, I'm... oh, never mind!

DUNGANNISTAN, March 17th 2006 – In this small Irish town where more than once in the past a horse has went missing, a quiet St Patrick's Day dawned over the steep streets where the Irish Republican Army allegedly once killed a donkey by mistake.

It's all true. My local newspaper, the Tyrone Courier, once ran a headline: 'Horse has went missing.' In case you didn't notice, the first line of the story continued: 'A horse has went missing from a field near...' And many years ago, a donkey apparently did step on some sort of home-made hidden landmine and, well, went missing. The two incidents are not connected. A horse is helping police with their equerries.

Listening to ever-strident BBC Radio Ulster yesterday it was clear that St Patrick's Day drunks and bad singing were escapable only by re-tuning to Radio 4. Oddly, though, Dungannistan remained half-busy, half on holiday. Mainly Protestant-owned shops opened for the day, whereas Catholic traders took the day off. Leaving my house at around 10am, I glimpsed a marching pipe band scuttling out Thomas Street with a faint squeak of The Fields of Athenry, but otherwise, a silent, grand spring day. I thought about buying a wee shamrock plant for my mother, then -- make of this what you will, shrinks and social anthropologists -- decided I could get one today for half-price.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

From hoy noy, broyn coy to hoots the noo!

There was an airline advertising campaign in the United States a few months ago where colloquial or catchy place names were juxtaposed to create an almost-rhyming or rhythmic slogan about two popular destinations. I think it might have been Continental Airlines -- if anyone knows what I am talking about, please let me know. An example would be "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy," except the creators got much cleverer than this. I believe one of them might have been something like "From the Upper East Side to the West End," indicating JFK to Heathrow.

The title of this post is my own crap attempt at this type of slogan. If you don't get it, then you don't know the ancient art of stereotyping accents and let's just leave it at that. (You are probably never going to see the horse's arse either). But this weekend I will set off again, from Northern Ireland back to beautiful Edinburgh, and that always-looming, all-prevading castle, pictured here with last week's dusting of snow...

The Importance of Elsewhere

Yesterday I went to Belfast for a job interview, or rather, more of a "nice-to-meet-you, check-you-out" experience, which was in and of itself, quite acceptable. I believe I was more than qualified for the job in question, had it materialized, but in the end the question of how good my short-hand was, proved to be the un-clincher.

"I'm afraid I don't know short-hand."

"How come with all your experience and education, you don't know short-hand?"

"Well, I've been a reporter for seven years, and I don't believe I know anyone in the business apart from one guy, who uses short-hand. To the extent that I have had to take accurate notes very fast, I have my own methods and I can stand over my note-taking as one hundred percent reliable."

The person I was speaking to was more than pleasant. He was one of those classic Northern Irish types who would be enormous fun in a pub over a few drinks yet who are also possessed of the seriousness and unshakeable principles that come from having reported on something as universally appalling yet meaningless as the Northern Irish Troubles. Journalists should be innately cautious of anyone who walks in off the street, so perhaps "you don't know short-hand?" was short-hand for "I'm not sure about you..."

I've been away from Northern Ireland for so long. In a sense, from the moment I was sentient I was trying to leave. I've returned with the thought of being a bit closer to my ailing relatives -- so far, "a complicated experience" is perhaps the most charitable way of describing it. When I left my interview and walked up Great Victoria Street I thought of a poem by Philip Larkin, which I will quote here out of context but I will let it speak as short-hand for my experience.

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lovely Larne

Unlovely Larne lingers in my mind. I found a photograph of Larne in snow, which takes the edge of it a bit.

Maybe I was a little too hard on Larne: it seems it is quite an historic place. It has been a port for over 1,000 years and apparently there is a touching statue showing an emigrant family heading for the boat. But in more recent times it is associated in Northern Irish history with the Larne gun-running of 1914, when certain men smuggled 20,000 rifles and 4 million rounds of ammunition for the defense of Ulster through the port of Larne. If there is one thing Ireland has needed least throughout recent history, it is guns.

Like most other Northern Irish towns it has had a troubling sectarian history, but it was not until I was living in New York City that I first heard the terrible yet evocative expression, "to hang one's head low like a Larne Catholic."

Monday, March 13, 2006

"This train shall call at Maybole, Girvan, Barrhill and Stranraer, where it shall terminate."

Terminate. Or more simply, die. For me, it is the bleakest journey in the world. I leave Edinburgh, a city which has the haughtiness of an imperious old dowager. A train takes me to Glasgow, a big, angry, fleshy, fat city with Victorian architecture in abundance where people are either bellowing or looking daggers at everyone else. Then comes the decline away from city scenes as another train chugs towards the wee town of Ayr.

By this stage of the journey, towns give way to villages and then fields, hills, cowsheds in the unending rain. It sounds idyllic and in some ways it is. Today there was a spectacular rainbow which cheered me up. There was a river that flowed fast and muddy with the melting snow. But otherwise, this journey to the ferry port of Stranraer feels as if the great land mass of Scotland has started to give up with an exhausted little squeak as it slides towards the Irish Sea.

Stranraer... can there be anywhere more dismal? Oh yes there can. For, with the Stena line ferries cancelled because of rough seas (the television monitors carried this message: "sailings cancelled do (sic) to severe weather"), travellers like me were taken by bus to another port, Cairnryan, and the ferry leaving Cairnryan goes to Larne.

Lovely Northern Ireland has some of the unloveliest of places and Larne is one of them. Tonight, as I disembarked into the Larne night and walked towards the bus for Belfast, there was no sign of my luggage. I asked one of the ferry workers who pointed me to where my bag would soon arrive off the ferry. I thanked him and asked, "will the bus wait for me while I get my bag?" He turned round and roared too loudly with laughter and said: "Oh, I don't know about that! This is Larne, absolutely anything can happen here!"

I got my bag, boarded the bus and left, which, for the sake of accuracy, is the only thing that actually does happen in Larne -- people leave it. The Ulsterbus driver looked like he had just skirted puberty and might have been 17 years old. But he knew exactly what to do: as soon as the door closed he floored the accelerator and we left Larne without slowing for any of the speed bumps.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A very dodgy veggie curry

Having misread timetables and found myself still in Edinburgh for one more day (and not blowing up Royal Avenue in Belfast), the evening stretched out looking like just any other Saturday evening in Edinburgh: drinks, friends, entertaining blather. But sometimes life takes a canter down some really lurid side streets.

Time will not permit me to tell the whole story now, but let me whet your appetite as assuredly as mine was blunted last evening. In a vegetarian curry house, first the manager did an impression of a suicide bomber to encourage my dining companions and myself to clear our plates ("eat up or I'll blow!") and then, for further entertainment, showed us a video clip on his cell phone of a man having his penis chopped off for committing rape.

As we fled into the night howling with laughter and horror, it occurred to us that we had all had a nibble at something which another waiter had described as "vegetarian black pudding."