Hello again all and, as seems almost inevitable with this website which I so naively embarked upon a few months ago, I begin with an apology. Any of my handful of readers who were following matters sequentially will have left me back in Northern Ireland in early August 2018 where I had spent about two … Continue reading “I am back again.”
Hello again all and, as seems almost inevitable with this website which I so naively embarked upon a few months ago, I begin with an apology.
Any of my handful of readers who were following matters sequentially will have left me back in Northern Ireland in early August 2018 where I had spent about two months at home with my Father having only intended to be there for about a week. I ended up staying until the 10th of that month when I returned to London for a literally overnight turnaround which entailed unloading the few dirty items of laundry (I had laundered at my Dad’s before leaving), replacing them with clean from the Himalayan pile of clean clothing awaiting ironing which may happen sometime before a politician tells the truth but don’t hold your breath. I swear that little suitcase has not been fully unpacked for about 18 months now.
The next day saw me on a train and heading for the utterly delightful seaside town of Broadstairs in Kent, which is about as far East as you can go in that county without getting wet as you will have fallen in the Channel! Apart from the many obvious charms of this delightful town you may wonder why I was taking myself there and the reason is simple, it was Broadstairs Folk Week which is arguably the largest and certainly my favourite of the numerous Folk Festivals that take place all over the UK every year.
Most UK festivals are weekend or long weekend four-day gigs but Broadstairs is one of the three week-long events that take place throughout the season (the others being Sidmouth in Devon and Whitby in North Yorkshire) and I am unsure exactly how many years I have played it but I reckon it is 27 this year. I missed one in 2016 as I was travelling in Canada but otherwise it has been an unbroken run. The Canada trip will eventually form the basis of another set of retrospective entries here but there really is so much to be done beforehand. Likewise I have more than enough images, memories and written pieces salvaged from other now-defunct sites to construct travelogues on many different years here but again it is all a matter of when I get time to do it.
I am something of a standing joke in Broadstairs although I have to say that that particular state of being is not at all confined to this location. The reason is that, like my four-day Dutch trip last year which took three and a half months and my week back in Northern Ireland which took two, I have a habit of not going home. I am not even going to start explaining my five-week trip to the Philippines in 2012 where I managed to substitute the word months for weeks and is yet another travelogue waiting to happen. I just tend to get marooned in places and last year I came to Broadstairs to play Folk Week but ended up going back to London in early November as I wanted to attend Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph as I habitually do if I am in the country. It is just the way I am, I get cast up on foreign shores and tend to remain.
You may well wonder how I manage to do such things and I do try to explain them as I go along in my various little travelogues here. I am certainly not a rich man and cannot afford to just sign into some hotel or another for months on end. I hope I can give a few tips in my writing about how to minimise costs for the independent traveller but in the case of Broadstairs it is very simple. I have two wonderful friends who live right in the middle of the town and are kind enough to put me up, allowing me to stay as long as I like even though I often tell them to throw me out when they are sick of the sight of me. They never do. I am not going to name them here for various reasons but they have my deepest thanks and are the most lovely people. Again I am drawn back to another of my travel / life mantras (is there a difference?) that there are a Hell of a lot more good people in the world than bad and so here I am on a gloriously sunny Summer day in a town I love with an almost ridiculous passion. A dear friend whose opinion I greatly respect once told me it was my “spiritual home” and, whilst I shy away from the term somewhat, it is undoubtedly true.
I am typing this in a great bar (the George) which is not 200 yards from my bed and “home” where I have my own key. I have free run of the kitchen and bathroom, access to the washing machine (vital when you travel as light as I do) and I am living with friends who I socialise with on an almost daily basis. How bad can that be? If any of you have been reading the account of my little European excursion last year you will have heard me speaking of the “travel Gods” who I firmly believe in. No, that is not a belief system nor religion and, no, I am not intending to start a cult worshipping them but I genuinely believe in their presence, not as deities per se but just some sort of “something” that looks out for travellers. I have a Hell of a life on the road and I fully appreciate that fact.
Enough of the philosophy and back to the details. I am in Broadstairs again for whatever length of time, I have been asked to play at the local Folk Club this evening which is generally a good laugh and I believe there may also be a firework display which really are spectacular here. I’ll keep you posted. I have been asked to play at a house party on Saturday for other friends where there will be a bunch of musos hanging about as the male half of the couple is a bass player in no less than three bands so that should be fun. Of course this sort of thing ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy as someone sees you at a gig and asks you to open for them the next Tuesday or “dep” (stand in for someone) at another gig and so becoming stranded here is not too difficult.
Right, I think that is me caught up with my present position but for anyone who is coming upon this site for the first time I shall provide a couple of links to the other travelogues I have alluded to as the only way I can keep any semblance of order here is to post events on the days they happened.
The European trip of 2017 as mentioned above is eventually finished and I am going to attempt to pin this entry to the top of the site (fingers crossed) so you can have a look at all the back entries I have done and the many more I still have to do. Honestly, this backdating is the only way I can ever hope to keep this whole enterprise in any sort of order.
As a final comment, thank you as always to everyone who has read my pages here and sent comments or “liked” them and there is much more to come so please stay tuned and spread the word.
I fully appreciate that it has been a long time since I posted anything current here so allow me to explain.
I have not been entirely idle (which is a change for me) and I have managed to finish off a few series of travelogues which are hopefully “pinned” (as I believe the term is) to the top of the homepage here. I really am not good at this technology thing. Please do have a look at them as all my best stuff is old history and the only way I can keep track is to backdate it which means it all tends to get a bit lost.
So what has been happening? Well, quite a bit actually. I have fallen into the “Broadstairs Triangle” as I call it and which, it must be said, is far more potentially conclusive than it’s Bermuda cousin unless you know what you are about. This is not me trying to make a point but I actually know people here who came for a holiday decades ago and never managed to go home. It really is that kind of place. I know other places like this (Perranporth in Cornwall being a fine example) but this place really sucks people in and it is not hard to see why.
If I was just sitting about festering, now that the unseasonably good late weather has turned nasty (it is Baltic out there and howling a gale as I write) it would be difficult to explain my continued presence here but Broadstairs isn’t like that. I have been playing regularly, guesting at a couple of folk clubs and the icing on the cake came a couple of weeks ago.
My dear friends John and Jo own a tiny (and very good) little gastropub up the road called the Reef Bar which they had to close for a while as the beer cellar had been turned into a paddling pool by yet another failure of the local water company. Without wishing to labour the point, a foreign company (J.P. Morgan to be precise) have bought out a local utility on behalf of their shareholders and screwed what they were supposed to be protecting. That is multi-national corporate business for you. What do American billionaires care about a couple trying so hard to run a good little bar / restaurant. Answer. Square root of nothing. I try not to be too political but I am concerned about this.
Having fought the incompetent utility alleged provider through their insurance company and had to shut their business for about six weeks (a lot in a 30? cover) establishment, my friends are re-opening and, against all logic, they have asked me to play the re-opening night. No pressure then! In truth, I do not really stress about gigs, I just turn up and play behind other people usually but apparently they trust me to actually do the grand re-launch. I mean, come on.
The recently retired artistic Director of the Folk Week would never give me an evening gig as she wasn’t sure of what state I would be in, which is unkind. I was never Jim Morrison or Ozzy or whoever. I wasn’t that lucky. I have to say that I have never missed a gig (barring being a little late one evening when the London Tube broke down in the tunnel) and I have never been too wasted to play. I think people overplay my persona a bit and I certainly do milk it, it’s all part of the scene. I will not ever screw a gig.
I told you previously that this site is going to be brutally honest, which I suppose is only of any value of anyone ever reads it but for whoever may, at some point, here are the memoirs of a guy that could play about four chords and managed to play all over the world with them. Sure, I would have loved to have played like Rory or Gary or Jimi or Steve or whoever but I’ll live with that.
I have roped one great mate (a superb banjo / mandolin player) in and I hope to get a few more mates about me so wish me luck. I am sure it will be grand. If I can manage the technology I shall post here an image of the poster that Jo (by trade a graphic designer) has knocked up for the event. You cannot believe how embarrassed I get walking past a bar (it is on the only road about 400 yards from my door) and seeing my own ugly mug staring out at me in A3 size from both the tiny front windows. It really is bizarre.
When I get that out of the way I shall be back to London to attend the Cenotaph for the Act of Remembrance on the 11th November as I do every year when I am in the country. It is particularly meaningful this year as it is the 100th anniversary of the end of the “War to end all wars”, which apparently was not. Yes, I shall be sad to leave Broadstairs as I always am because it holds a very special place in my heart but I have other things to be doing and I do not want to overstay my welcome.
My next run is back to Sri Lanka. OK, it is a bit earlier than usual in the year (I got down just before Christmas last year and in January the trip before) and I normally only go there every other year but England are playing cricket and I might even get the last Test if I work it right! OK, I’m not English but I do like my cricket albeit never having played a game in my life and I fancy seeing a Test match overseas. I am aiming for Test starting on the 23rd November in Colombo as I can go there on the bus from where I will be staying. Imagine commuting to a Test match every day!
That is the current situation in my life although, having looked at my stats on this page, I am now debating the wisdom of even starting this blog as nobody ever looks at it. I know self-promotion is everything in the 21st century but I am of a generation that was taught that “self-praise is no recommendation”. I am one of the possibly noble or possibly stupid few (possibly both as nobility seems to be a dying art) that have resisted the supposed lure of Fartbook, Instacrap, Twatter and all the rest. I do not wish to add to Steve FZuckerbergs billions, nor do I want my personal details hacked and sold to Asian crimxinals for the purposes of fraud.
Enough of this. I shall backpost a few bits and pieces of the time that I have been here although being myself they do not amount to much, a few decent gigs, some not so decent gigs, hanging out with great friends and enjoying myself. Really, how bad can life be? I am in a great place (in all senses of the word), plotting my Southern winter migration to another great place (ditto) and I am one happy man. This retirement business is certainly suiting me and I cannot believe that next April I will have been a pensioner for ten years. How old does that make me feel?
When I have rubbed linament on my aching old joints, taken my various medications to try to stave off aging, deleted the various e-mails offering me a stairlift (how do they know I am old?) and all the rest, I’ll be back with another wild meandering idiocy of a post here.
I am now debating which of the many previous rambles that I have managed one way and another to write about and still have saved despite the best efforts of one particular evil corporate entity to destroy (having stolen the content, I use the word advisedly, for their own use). One other website just went down due to lack of interest and that is why I am here. If I can manage it or even find the necessaries in the wreckage that is my computer filing system, I think I might write up a little trip I had to Yorkshire where three friends and I took a canal boat out for a weekend.
I am sure I have mentioned before my love of canals and canal boats and this was a great weekend which I extended at both ends by visiting a part of my country that I knew (and still do) lamentably little about. As and when I get it done, I shall try to “pin” it to the “sticky (get me with all the technology) to the front page here so you can find it. Trust me, I am still really finding my way at this point. Website owner? Me? Are you bloody joking?
Stay tuned, wait for the meat pie episode on the canal and spread the word.
The tenth of the month appeared and it was time to head off. My Father’s health was as stable as it can be at this point, he was being very well cared for and it was time for me to head off. Yet again I had managed to involve myself in a massive overstay although it was probably one that is slightly more understandable given the circumstances. I had gone “home” in early June for a family reunion on my Mum’s side of the family which I had thoroughly enjoyed despite some initial misgivings due to so much time and separation.
For reasons that I have outlined in previous entries I had stayed rather longer than my intended week or so and it was time to get off again. My brother had told me that there was effectively nothing useful I could do there (is there ever anything useful I can do?) and I had a little plan in mind. It was called Broadstairs Folk Week and it will form another series of blogs here shortly.
My kid brother (how can I call him a kid when he is 57 years old and Father to a 20 year old strapping lump of a son?) very kindly gave me a lift to the station and I started off on what should have been an uneventful journey back “home” to London for an overnight turnaround and off to Broadstairs to play and meet so many old friends. Train from Portadown to Dublin Connolly, no problem. Bus to the ferryport, no problem. Ferry, big problem. Surely it cannot be just me and my cursed bad luck but they had completely screwed me on the way out and then they screwed me on the way back. I will not provide links for Stena Ferries or Irish Ferries here as I do not want to give them the admittedly minimal traffic I generate but who knows, one day I may go viral. They are both abysmal and seem to exist purely for their shareholders with no regard for the travelling public.
To make a long story short, we eventually arrived in Holyhead, having missed our train. Not a major problem as there was one coming soon but it just shows the utter incompetence of the ferry companies running that route. The train I was not supposed to be on involved a change at Chester but I was already ahead of the game on that one. I had about a 35 minute layover and I knew that there was a better than decent pub just across the road from the station so time for a quick pint and a smoke before the onward journey but there was one potential problem.
Because of the ticket type I was using the system would have swallowed the ticket had I tried to use the automatic gates but I knew from previous experience that the gate staff here are pretty decent and will let you out the gate for a smoke if you ask nicely. In the event I needn’t have worried as the inevitable staff shortages meant that the gates were wide open as they legally have to be when they are unmanned in case of emergency.
Happy days. I took off outside, devoured a cigarette in no time flat and walked into the Town Crier which was quite busy at half seven on a Friday evening in decent weather but I was served quickly by a very friendly young barmaid who, after explaining my need for haste watched in some amazement as I skulled the pint in about no time flat. I really must make some time to visit this pub properly as I do rather like it and I only ever manage one hurried pint between trains in there.
OK, I was in a rush and missing my train after the cock-up by the ferry company was not an option as I would have been travelling literally all night. Sod that. Thanking the barmaid I went back across the road and was in good time for my inevitably delayed onward connection. I swear I do not understand how British railways can charge what I believe are still the highest mile for mile prices in the world and continue to provide such an abysmal service. Frankly, the word service flatters them as the only people they serve are their usually foreign shareholders and passengers be damned.
Back to London then without further mishap and I ran into the problem that always assails me when I get back form a trip. My nearest tube station is only about ten minutes walk from home, even with luggage but there is a slight impediment in the way in the form of the Half Moon pub where all my mates drink. Well, I had been away for a while and wanted to catch up on the news so in I went, complete with luggage, to be immediately assailed by a few mates all demanding to know “where the Hell I had been this time”. I told them about being back to Northern Ireland and a few drinks were had before I made my way home eventually at about 0100 to yet another appalling pile of mail, mostly complete unsolicited junk which I binned immediately. No, I do not wan’t a bloody stairlift and I know where the best eating houses are. I swear that is the worst part of travelling.
I did take an image but in my exhausted state I didn’t have the sense to turn the envelopes over and much as I love my few readers, you don’t get my home address that easily. I know I am not the smartest man around but I am not that stupid! Take my word for it, it was a bloody huge pile.
Leaving any correspondence that looked like it might be semi-official to be dealt with later, I hit the sack and slept like a baby. Thus ends this series of entries about my rather extended trip back to my home country and I hope you have enjoyed them but the break in my own home was to last all of about 12 hours because I had things to do, places to go, people to see and a guitar to play.
Because I always backdate everything to the relevant days, if you press next after this item you’ll see what happened later that day and which begins another series of ramblings which I am still engaged on in late October 2018! I swear I don’t know why I own a flat (apartment) as I am never there.
Stay tuned and spread the word.
Apparently nothing happened on the 8th as I do not have a single image but on the morning of the 9th my kid brother turned up on yet another one of his hugely powered motorcycles (he has a fleet of them) and I asked him to take an image. This one is his comfy BMW tourer that he uses to go away on with his missus. He also has a CBX which he loves and is about 40 years of age but still pristine and a VFR which is a bit rapid to say the least.
He insisted on putting the visor down and so, ladies and gentlemen, I present my younger sibling, the very nice Mr. Vader (Darth by name) who really does not deserve the press he gets! Round the village / town where he lives (I am never sure of the proper designation) he is generally known as “Big Al” which makes me smile a little as I am taller than him. I dread to think what they call me behind my back. “Big Al’s Big Brother” perhaps or more likely, “That eejit that appears now and again, drinks a bit and plays the guitar and then buggers off again”. Really, at my time of life I don’t care.
This admittedly short entry is only here to put this image in some sort of context. Believe me, I head for mainland UK in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.
Nothing to report for the next couple of days but on the 7th I knew I had to get to Belfast. As I have explained before it is ludicrously the only way I can buy a sailrail ticket back to London by travelling to the rail Travel Centre there. Still, I hadn’t managed to get to the city of my birth since I had been home so it was no great hardship.
A pleasant enough journey on the train deposited me at the station and straight to the Travel Centre where a friendly guy dealt with me quickly and efficiently (look, I have my travel writing head back on now) so the rest of the day was mine. What to do? Well, obviously a drink or two would be called for but I fancied a bit of a wander round, just for the old times. Damn, I grew up here when it was a lot different.
First stop was always going to be the Crown Bar, a wonderful place which is actually owned by the National Trust and is arguably the most famous bar in the city. Nowadays tourists wander in the door, take a few photos and walk out without even buying a soft drink which I think is a bit rude but that is the modern world, I suppose.
I managed to bag a little snug by the door from which I could watch things going on whilst being relatively unobserved myself. Suits me and that is and was the purpose of the snug. If you don’t know what a snug is (they are all but extinct now) then look back to an earlier entry here where I explain it. A couple of pints and I was ready for a walk.
Taking a couple of “back doubles” (i.e. backstreets and alleyways) I could still remember, I wandered down the side of Belfast City Hall which is a wonderful place to visit should you be in Belfast. They also have a really helpful Tourist Information place there. I only had a vague idea of where I was going, actually I had no idea, and so I headed for Royal Avenue which for the benefit of my UK readers is like the Oxford Street of London or, I suppose 5th Avenue in New York or wherever. It is basically the main shopping thoroughfare and I trundled along until a sudden thought hit me. I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
I thought I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
There are obviously some brilliant artists in the country and most of them tend to do their work on walls rather than canvas or paper. The murals in Belfast and, indeed, the rest of Northern Ireland, are famous and there are organised tours which do nothing but visit them. Many of them are sectarian and glorify terrorists and history that would probably best be left alone although the genre seems to have extended now to non-controversial subject matter. I just thought this was a beautiful piece of work, not that I am any sort of art critic.
Memo to self. Do a piece on Belfast murals when you ever get round to it.
Having had my artistic fix for the day (I was never going to go to a gallery) I made Kelly’s. This is quite an odd place in some respects, mostly associated with my youth. Belfast really was tribal when I was a teenager and walking down the wrong street would literally get you a kicking or worse. Being where it is, Kelly’s would not have been the type of place I would have gone to because it was on the “wrong” side. What actually changed a lot of that, if only for a while, was the music. In about 1976 or 1977 the punk explosion happened and all bets were off.
I liked the punk scene and the music although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I never really got into the whole thing very much apart from one awful attempt to dye my hair purple and wearing old jackets I had bought in charity shops but it really was the big thing. Sectarianism was still killing hundreds of people a year in a country of (then) about 1.5 million people but that all went by the board with the punk scene. We had some bloody good bands too, Stiff Little Fingers probably being the most famous, but others like Protex, Ruefrex etc. were also doing good stuff. I always liked the Outcasts because I went to school with Greg the bass player. If I can find the image of when we met at a school reunion 30 years later I’ll post it here. He hasn’t changed (and still plays) but I just look bloody old!
The thing about Kelly’s was that it didn’t matter about your background or religion or whatever. If you were into the music, that was enough. Sure, it took the rest of the country long enough to catch up. In fairness, rock gigs were the same. When I used to go and see the late Rory Gallagher (in my not so humble opinion still the best white blues guitarist ever) and people like Horslips (brilliant Celtic folk-rock band) nobody gave a damn who you were or where you came from but they tended to play in big venues like the Ulster Hall (Rory) and the Whitla Hall (Horslips), both of which were in fairly “neutral” areas. Kelly’s was a bit different.
In I went and not a damn thing had changed in about 40 years, it was exactly as I remembered except for the constant stream of tourists coming in for a pint of Guinness, a few photos and a bowl of the Irish Stew, speciality of the house and which looked and smelt gorgeous although I didn’t try it, it was far too early in the day for eating. Yet another one for the memory bank and, dragging myself away from the brilliant barmaid who was cranking my Belfast accent up by about 10% per hour (I came back to England sounding so broad) I took off again.
Partly by accident and, I suppose, subliminally by design I found myself at Smithfield market. Well, the image tells you what it looks like. In my day it was a collection of wooden shacks selling everything imaginable and some things you possible would not wish to imagine. I loved the place. I bought my first guitar in there.
I had learned a few chords on an old Eko Ranger 6 that my Dad had brought home (and never even lifted to my knowledge although he plays keyboards well) but I wanted my own and I paid £15 for a Harmony six string which is not a great make but I wish I had it now. I read a quote from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers saying it was his first guitar and it was unplayable but mine played reasonably well and I loved it.
As for the Eko, it still resides in my Dad’s house, bruised, battered but never broken and it features in an earlier entry in this set of blogs about this trip. Look for the entry where I constructed a capo from a bookie’s pen and a few hairbands! It has to be well over 50 years old now and the action is still pretty good. I suppose it is a bit like I am really – too old, rough round the edges and pretty ugly but still holding up a tune. I reckon it will outlive me!
Smithfield now is just sterile and wasn’t to my liking at all. Sure, I am glad they rebuilt it but it just isn’t the same. I had a look in a few shops but I might as well have been in Camden Market in London i.e. overpriced tat aimed at tourists. I do realise that I am starting to sound really old now but, as I have said, I can only write one way.
Leaving the 21st century predictablility of the new Smithfield I kept on walking as I usually do in search of something I could at least refer back to and which had not been swept away (i.e. blown up) by the the ravages of organised criminals posing as “freedom fighters” and subsequently replaced at huge expense to the taxpayer (i.e. me) on the back of the so-called “peace dividend”.
I obviously love the fact that you don’t have to walk about Belfast now wondering if you might have the front of a building blown out over your head and killing or maiming you, although that possibility still regrettably exists, but I cannot help but feel somewhere in me that the soul of the place has somehow got lost in translation. Certainly I have been away for a long time but I feel like a stranger in Belfast now even with my thick accent making me sound enough like a local to get by.
I walked along a few streets that I recognised by their location if not the premises there and came on the Mermaid Inn which is not a place I would have frequented when I was living there. This was not for any reason of personal safety as it is in a fairly neutral central zone, it just was not a place I used to hang out. It was OK although nothing special and a bit soulless so one pint in there was enough and back for another little trip down memory lane (there is an intended pun here for those that may know Belfast as it is an area known as the Lanes) with another aimless ramble.
I suppose it is entirely logical after 30 years but feeling like an outsider in a place I once lived was a very odd sensation. No, there was no animosity, far from it as Belfast people are renowned for their hospitality and I was greeted warmly wherever I went. I could not, however, help feeling like one of the numerous North American / European / Asian tourists who do so much now for the economy of a small country that would not have seen a foreign visitor thirty years ago as it was a war zone and that is not hyperbole, it is s simple statement of fact. I genuinely do not know how I feel these days about where I was born, strange as that may sound. Again, this seems a bit heavy but (all together now) I can only write one way.
Leaving the Mermaid I took myself down to Cornmarket, quite a hub in the commercial area, and had a brief look at some meaningless piece of modern sculpture that someone clever enough to work the system had undoubtedly been paid a fortune to put there. You can get the same in any city but I could not help but look instead at a modern shopfront which, in my day, was the Abercorn bar and restaurant, basically a cafe and restaurant on the ground floor and a bar upstairs.
The Abercorn is etched on the minds of anyone who lived in Belfast at that time. On Saturday, 4 March 1972, it became the scene of one of the defining moments of so many others in the horror of what was wrought on my country by criminal terrorists posing as something noble over decades. The cafe was full of shoppers, mostly women and children when two teenage female IRA murderers left a 5lb. bomb in a handbag and walked out with it exploding two minutes later. It left two young women dead and about 130 injured, many with horrific injuries including losing limbs and permanent blindness. To call it carnage would be to much understate the case. For those not completely au fait with the politics of Northern Ireland, why was this done? Because the IRA believed that British soldiers used the upstairs bar. Why then place the bomb in the cafe? That was the thinking of what was effectively an organised crime syndicate masquerading under the pretence of being “liberators”. Yes, I do feel strongly about his subject, very strongly and with good reason.
To use an ugly phrase with much currency in Northern Ireland at that time, they scored a spectacular “own goal”. The two young ladies they murdered were both Catholics i.e. on “their” side. The lines are very blurred on this as not all Catholics are Nationalists and neither are all Protestants Unionists, as many of the first Irish Republicans were Protestant (e.g Wolfe Tone). I really mean this, if you don’t know much about politics in Northern Ireland, then don’t try if you do not have many years left as it really is too convoluted and you will be dead before you ever even close to getting to grips with the intricacies.
Again, I understand that this is pretty heavy stuff and understandably incomprehensible to many who may some day read this. Remarkably for me, I make no apology for this writing as I seem to spend half my time here doing doing just that.
Perhaps I am finally getting my admittedly limited intellect around the concept of editorial freedom and I am actually finding it quite liberating after years of having to avoid even the most obliquely political comment on various sites for fear of bringing down the wrath of the usually self-appointed “internet police”. As always, I welcome any and all constructive debate here and I promise to answer everyone who may wish to contact me. In truth, it will not take much time as my readership is so meagre but I now have the “freedom” of the internet (on payment of a fee obviously). How I wish I had got into this gig at the start when it was a case of becoming a millionaire without getting out of your chair, what a life. Still, no point in crying over spilt milk and I probably couldn’t have managed it anyway, technophobe as I am.
Enough of all this and back to my nostalgic and ever so slightly disorientating meander round the capital of the country which seems to be causing all sorts of merry Hell in the Brexit fiasco currently being played out (October 2018) against a background of fine meals eaten by politicians and unelected bureaucrats in countries we either saved or fought against to save Europe from the yoke of Fascism.
If the reader is not aware (and why would they be outside Europe?) the major problem to implementing the democratic will of the British people (to paraphrase Robert Plant from a Led Zep live gig, “Does anyone remember democracy”?) that they should leave the much disliked Federal States of E is the border between Northern Ireland, the subject of this blog entry, and the Republic of Ireland. The people of the Republic voted in a referendum some years ago against the will of Brussels (Treaty of Lisbon I believe although I may be wrong) so the public were sent back to the ballot box until the desired Brussels result was obtained. They have done the same in other countries but that is the EU concept of democracy.
As far as I can see, E (as they will soon undoubtedly be called) stubbornly refuse to accept a “hard” border between a country that wants to bow the knee and one whose people voted not to. I was born in Northern Ireland in the 1950’s, lived there until the late 1980s and, for a long period of that time, there was a “hard” border. Yes, we were separate countries, yes there were border posts (before Republican terrorists started murdering Customs officers (my friend’s uncle was one such) as supporters of the British “apparatus”) but it never took more than a minute or two for my Father to drive my Mother, younger brother and I into the Irish Republic past the respective border posts. It may even have still been called Eire then, I cannot remember and life is too short to look it up. Anyway, it was never a problem. A “hard” border is only a problem to the multi-nationals who are all committed Remoaners (that is not a typo). Border posts are in place all over the world and yet it still keeps turning. Will the re-introduction of such cause the sun not to rise the next day? I think not.
Next up was a quick trip to one of the many “pound shops” that are such a feature of any British city centre these days and I love them. My primary purpose for visiting this day was that I was down to my last pair of reading glasses yet again. I really do not know what I do with them. I leave them lying at my backside, sit on the occasional pair and drop some others so often that the lenses become irrevocably scratched. I really am hard on them but fortunately I do not need prescription lenses so I stock up on as many pairs as I can lay hands on cheaply at any given opportunity. I cannot remember the name of this particular shop but, as the generic description of it I have given suggests, everything in there is £1 which is not a lot of money for any non-British people who may stumble upon this rambling.
I bought three pairs of glasses, two hardback books which were each marked at about £17:99 and were titles by two of my favourite authors that I had not yet read. I bought three multipacks of chocolate bars for my Dad who loves anything sweet and the whole lot came to £8. At time of writing this in October 2018 that is $10:45US. To quote the Who, “I call that a bargain”.
Heading back vaguely in the direction of the train station I walked past the premises of Fred J. Malcolm Jewellers which has not changed one iota in at least 40 years. It was here that I bought an engagement ring the one and only time I ever started to descend the slippery slope to matrimony. My late Mother knew the man running the place as she used to dabble a bit in collecting antique silver and so I got a good price although it was still an arm and a leg for a lovely piece, £800 as I recall in 1986 or ’87. That was a lot of money then but I was earning what was probably more than was good for an irresponsible young man like me in those days.
The engagement didn’t work out and I am quite prepared to admit now, as I did then, that the fault was entirely mine and that the young lady really did deserve a lot better than me. I did hear years later that she was happily married with kids which was what she always wanted. I have not heard of her for decades and I suppose she may well be a grandmother by now. I wish her all the very best and I do hope she is happy as she was a truly wonderful lady and how she put up with me as long as she did is still something of a mystery to me.
It is strange that even after all years a simple walk round Belfast city centre still provokes such strong emotions in me and there was more to come.
Time for a bite to eat and I knew where I was going as it was a Tuesday and therefore grill night in Wetherspoons pubs all over the UK. Again, for the benefit of non-UK readers Wetherspoons is a huge chain of pubs which all do food and they even have a few hotels now. I believe there are about 880 outlets at the last count and opinion is much divided about them. They work very much on economies of scale and rarely buy up pubs but rather convert old banks, casinos, theatres, Post Office sorting depots, churches and just about anything else huge that you care to mention and convert them, always with a local theme. I use the examples given as I have drunk in at least one of each type with my local in East London being the old Half Moon theatre which I can actually remember in it’s former incarnation.
There may be more than one ‘Spoons (as they are called colloquially) in Belfast now but the place I go is the Bridge House which is actually two buildings knocked through. One was a fancy goods box maker and the other an undertaker. What is of interest is that the architect was Sir Charles Lanyon whose other works include the glorious and technically challenging Antrim Coast Road, the Palm House in the nearby Botanical Gardens and the main building of Queen’s University which is also a short walk away. All of these will feature in future entries here if I live long enough.
I mentioned that opinion is much divided in the UK and Ireland where they have now expanded about the Wetherspoon brand so please allow me to briefly explain why. Many people like them as they offer very competitively priced food and drink and others decry them, claiming they are putting traditional pubs out of business as they cannot compete. I must say that I am firmly in the former camp.
Pubs were, and still are, closing at an alarming rate for a huge number of reasons which I am not going to go into here and it was nothing to do with Wetherspoons. If anyone ever even reads this and is slightly interested, send me a message here on the site and I’ll talk you through it. In the interests of fair reporting, which I have always tried to do on any site I have written for, and have even more reason to do so on my own, I must say that the service in a Wetherspoons establishment can be sketchy sometimes and nothing short of unacceptable at others. Part of the business model is to have as few staff as possible, although they are very good to them, winning award after award for being a great employer.
I have eaten and drunk in their outlets all over the UK many times and the only complaint I can make about the food is that I was once served an eggs Benedict with a cold Hollandaise, that’s it. It’s not haute cuisine, it is not meant to be, it is just reasonably priced grub (freezer to plate for sure) done well.
A year or two back I took my Canadian friend Lynne to this self same place when we visited Belfast on a tour of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Now, they know a thing or two about eating out in large chain bars there and we had spent manys a happy evening in various Boston Pizzas which I absolutely adore but I have a slight problem with their portion control as one of their pasta dishes for one feeds me for three meals! Anyway, I took Lynne here and I remember it well. She liked the bar, ordered a Philly cheesesteak (I think that is what it was called) and pronounced it very good. I thought that was pretty good coming from a “North American” and, please trust me, I am not on the JDW payroll to write this.
I don’t know if it was just a bit of nostalgia or whatever but I managed to get the same table for two that we had sat at the night we visited. I started on one of the new books I had just bought and had a couple of pints before ordering my dinner which was exactly what I had had when I was there with Lynne but there was no element of nostalgia in this – the spare ribs in Wetherspoons are bloody brilliant and I always order them on grill night. I am so glad to see they have actually migrated to the daily menu so I can get them any time I feel like it. Yes, they were as good as they look albeit that it was a slightly bittersweet experience dining alone.
Another thing I like about Wetherspoons is that their head man, a guy called Tim Martin, who is obviously no mug to have built up such an empire (for such it is) speaks absolutely my language about the whole Brexit nonsense that is going on now. Yes, we are back to that again. Not only does he “talk the talk” about it, intelligently deconstructing the fallacious arguments of the political class trying to protect their own gravy train, but he “walks the walk” by sourcing as much as possible from the UK, offering special deals specifically marketed as “Free Trade” or something similar where they are offering products from non EU countries cheaper than the brands currently protected under Federal States of E diktat. Here is a great example and proves far better than I ever could why it is such a good idea to get out of the EU, deal or no, as soon as possible. I have to say I am really relishing this freedom to actually say what I want.
To go back to a former “life” when I wrote for a great travel website I answered many questions for first time visitors to UK who had been frightened off a bit by reading about obscene prices for eating out and I always used to recommend Wetherspoons. That has not changed. Certainly you can eat cheaper by going for a “meal deal” from any number of supermarkets (which are great for a picnic in the park or whatever) but for a sit down meal Wetherspoons is as good as any and, again, I stress that I am not being paid to write this. The breakfasts are great and the curries on a Thursday night are excellent. I speak as one who has travelled a bit in South and Southeast Asia and whose dear friend makes the best curry in the world (I will accept no argument on this point, you really want to taste it).
Where were we on this lunatic series of digressions which have, one way and another, taken me four days to write? Ah yes, I had a bellyful of delicious spare ribs and headed back to the train station for a lateish train to Portadown and thence a cab home, the last bus having gone at 1750! Honestly, public transport in Northern Ireland is criminally bad.
Well, I didn’t expect my little jaunt to Belfast to buy a train ticket to have taken so long and with so many verbal excursions to describe but there you have it.
I shall finish off this little, or not so little, trip soon and get back to UK to head straight into another bit of an adventure so stay tuned and spread the word.
There are going to be a few days rolled into one here, as appears to be turning into a habit on my little site as, barring a day out in Belfast, mot much of note happened before I returned “home” to London on 10th August and which begged the question was I leaving “home” or going “home”. The facts of the matter are that I lived in Northern Ireland for the first 28 years of my life and have now lived in London (when I am not on my seemingly endless travels) in London for 30 now. As always, any comments would be most welcome on the subject of what you define as home?
I was helping to look after my Dad a little although his care programme, between some wonderful carers who attend him at home, and my brother and sister-in-law who live about 500 yards round the corner ensure that there is nothing to worry about on that score. I was just doing some little tasks and trying to help out where I could. In truth, I think he enjoyed the company, and I know for a fact that he was well pleased on one day when my S-i-L had arranged not to cook for him (she is a brilliant cook) and I knocked him up an Ulster Fry, the dish which has featured so much in this series of blogs and which he declared to be very tasty so that was good enough for me.
I had fallen into a bit of a routine which, on the evidence or previous visits home, had the potential to bore me to tears and yet it didn’t. I was quite happy pottering about the house during the day, taking the odd day trip to Portadown or once to Belfast for reasons which shall be explained later, going to the local pub in the evening for a few drinks with friends and jamming occasionally. I was eating regularly (as the images show and which is not necessarily the case at other times) and reading a lot of good books (my Dad has no internet access). Leaving aside my Father’s health for a moment, it appeared to be doing mine a power of good.
I do realise that this is all a bit heavy reading for the occasional visitor to the site who does not know me, and let’s be honest, I have a meagre bunch of followers here who I thank for their support but, as I said in one of my opening pieces here, this is my last shot at blogging. I am not going to risk another commercial site being pulled from under me and so this is, at times, going to be pretty brutally honest. At some point this site, such as it is and may eventually become, will eventually float about the ether and provide my epitaph to some degree. At least hopefully you’ll be able to read it online as a diary of mine would be totally illegible due to my utterly appalling handwriting!
Yes, this started off as a travel orientated site and it remains so although not exclusively. For the first time I have complete editorial control albeit I still cannot free myself of the mindset of travel sites but I am getting there. I have all sorts of odd ideas like daily limericks and who knows what else.
So back to Northern Ireland on what had turned out, yet again in my case (a very small case as it happens) on what was intended to be a five or six day trip and I was two months down the road. If you have read some of my other exploits and if you read any of the many that are still to come then you will know that this is the way I am and, frankly, it suits me. My idea of travel Hell would be an organised trip as in breakfast at 0730 sharp, on the coach at 0800 sharp, famous museum at 0900 sharp, you get the idea.
I might as well start with one of my usual subjects i.e. the fry-up or ( often not so) healthy alternatives to it. The image above shows a little variant which is probably marginally less unhealthy than the Ulster Fry which has featured so prominently here. Let’s be honest, everyone loves cheese on toast but I love making it with soda bread. The effort pictured above features the said bread, Branston pickle, and a decent Red Leicester cheese I had picked up on offer at the little local supermarket. A quick crack of freshly ground pepper completes the dish. Again, I will digress here so I warn you in advance.
I am all in favour of a bargain in my food shopping and hunt out special offers in the same way I will go to a fresh produce market late in the day as they are virtually giving the stuff away. Also, I will mostly buy “own brands” from supermarkets for many things as they are every bit as good and often produced in the same factories as name brands but there are a few things I will not compromise on. Pickle of that type has to be Branston, English mustard has to be Colman’s and Worcestershire sauce has to be Lea & Perrins. Just about anything else is negotiable but these are not. Certainly there are a thousand other pickles and chutnies available and some of them very good, but this type has to be Branston.
I will certainly buy other styles of mustard (you can read in my European jaunt of 2017 on this site of how I went to Dijon in France purely to buy mustard for a foodie mate) but there is only one English mustard although the multinational Unilever, apart from their failed bit to Eurify to a single base in Rotterdam recently in September 2018 are moving from Norwich, it’s original home to two sites in Burton (Staffordshire, UK) and Germany. No surprise there and I wonder how that will play out when, or if, given the spineless nature of our alleged leaders, we eventually actually escape the mendacious clutches of the Federal States of E.
As for The Worcestershire sauce (which my Canadian friends call “W” sauce as they cannot get their tongues round the pronunciation, which admittedly is odd. I doubt I could cook without it (not that I can really cook anyway) to the extent that when I go to visit my friend in Sri Lanka I take a bottle of it with me as it costs a fortune when imported there for the expats. As a further digression off a digression, if such a thing be possible, why are there two pronunciations of the word pronunciation? Answers on a postcard please, as they say!
How can I write so much about a couple of pieces of cheese on toast? Very easily actually and I have just edited the above paragraph fairly seriously before I took off into a further digression about the origins of these fine British firms. Then again, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is MY site and I can do what I like.
I know opinion is very much divided about my writing style, if it can be called that, but on other commercial sites I have written for before more people seemed to like it than disliked it. In truth, I can only write in one style although I am trying to rein myself in a little bit. Being naturally inquisitive (for which read nosy if you like) I simply have to research everything I mention even tangentially in a blog entry and then include it in whatever I am writing. I reckon I’d have made a Hell of an intelligence officer in some field or another.
Right, back to the narrative. That was brekkie on the 2nd of August, and the 3rd was equally subdued with a toasted sandwich and some tomato soup for the morning meal. What was I thinking?
Thankfully, normal service appears to have resumed on the 4th as you can see above. A friend of mine who is a real foodie speaks of “food porn” which I used to scoff at a little but I reckon this is full on XXX rated. I am actually salivating now just looking at this image even if I did cook it myself. I swear this is turning into an Ulster Fry site!
I’ve rambled enough here so I’ll break off for another entry where I finally get back to Belfast so stay tuned and spread the word.
For those few of you that may have been following my little excursion back to the place of my birth I thank you and I do realise that it is getting on for three weeks since I posted here. As we have now entered another new month I thought I had better bring you up to date a bit once I have finished wondering where this year has gone to. Like so many clichés the old one about time moving quicker as you get older does indeed have a basis in truth and I really have no idea how the last seven months have slipped by.
I am still in Northern Ireland and enjoying myself although doing nothing worth writing about which is the first reason for the long absence here. I have not been at all idle on the blog front though despite my very limited internet access as I have been concentrating on constructing pages about my rather crazy ramble about Europe last year and have been quite pleased with my progress although it is time-consuming. The only way I can hope to keep myself vaguely organised here is to back publish entries to the dates to which they refer which means that you may not have seen them as they are buried away at the bottom of the homepage. If you would like to have a look you can click on the link here and see what you think. Believe me, it was a pretty mad journey one way and another.
There are a few bits and pieces for me to share with you and I shall start with the World Cup which was in full swing the last time I posted in this section. Despite the increasing hype in the British media football didn’t “come home” as England did very well but eventually fell short losing to Croatia in the semis. They are a young side who should get much better especially if manager Gareth Southgate remains in charge as he seems to know how to get the best out of them. They certainly did not disgrace themselves by getting to the semis.
When I saw the way the semis had worked out I actually managed to predict what would happen although in truth it was not too difficult. The fixtures were France vs. Belgium and England vs. Croatia and I said that either team in the first match would beat either in the second and so it was to prove. France beat Belgium and then an ageing Croatian side who are probably just about over as a group defeated the considerably younger English team.
In the game that I never see the point of i.e. the third and fourth place playoff a very decent Belgian team saw off England fairly comfortably. I didn’t think England looked that good in the game.
On to the Sunday and the Final and naturally, with the odd things that happen to me something a little strange took place. I was going to the pub quite early as I knew it would be crowded for the game and I wanted to get a seat. I popped into my local supermarket and saw a middle-aged guy wearing a Croatian football (soccer) shirt accompanied by a teenage lad who was almost as tall as me. I know that number of Eastern Europeans have moved into the village of late but I had not heard of any Croatians and I was intrigued as they seemed to be poring over a computer printout of a map with the young lad who works in the shop.
All soon became clear and it transpired they were a Father and son, the Father indeed being Croatian but they were now resident in the USA where they had flown from into Dublin airport that morning. They were heading for Limavady in the Northwest of the country as the son was playing in a large international youth football competition in that area. Almost unbelievably, the shop assistant did not know where it was which surprised me as Northern Ireland is such a small place and Limavady is a comparatively large town. How they had managed to deviate off the A1 and ended up in Tandragee is something of a mystery to me but here they were and in a bit of a bind as their hire car had no satnav and the guy could not get his American mobile (cell) ‘phone to work here. I told them the place was the best part of two hours drive and had formulated a route for them but when I told them that they would be struggling to get there in time for kickoff they asked if there was somewhere local that they could watch the game. No better man to ask and I told them to come with me for the 100 yard walk to the Montagu Arms of which I have spoken often.
In I walked with the two Croatians and announced to the assembled company that as it was the biggest day in Croatian footballing history I had arranged a couple of my own fans to help interpret the finer details of their team. Utter nonsense of course but my mates looked incredulous until the situation was explained and I bought the guys a drink (Cokes all round for them), introduced them and we all began to chat. As you probably know by now I am a great believer in the “interconnectedness of all things” as the late Douglas Adams so wonderfully termed it and also “what goes round comes round” as they say. Some years ago I had been in Zagreb during a major football tournament and I was staying in an obscure local area as usual. It was my practice every evening to go to a particular little locals bar to watch the games and I was treated brilliantly despite not a single word of a common language and here was I returning the favour to a couple of Croatians all these years later.
There still remained the problem of getting them to their ultimate destination after the match and fortunately my mate Ritchie was on hand. When Ritchie is not entertaining people with one of his selection of excellent guitars he is by trade a lorry driver and knows every road in the country. I had picked my route not because it was the shortest but because I thought it was the simplest involving mostly motorway driving but Ritchie came up with a shorter and apparently equally simple alternative which he managed to get printed off on the bar computer and explained in detail to our new Croatian friend who seemed well pleased.
When we are not slaughtering each other the people of Northern Ireland are the friendliest you will ever hope to meet and I am hope the man and his son will take home happy memories of their brief unplanned stop in a tiny village they had undoubtedly never heard of. What are the odds of such a thing happening? If I had been five minutes earlier I would never have run into those lovely people but, as the late Terry Pratchett once very intelligently remarked, “Million to one chances happen nine times out of 10”!
Whilst they may have been happy with the hospitality the result of the game was less to their liking with their home nation going down to a very talented French side who had played some stunning football throughout. Still, for a nation of a shade over four million people they had done remarkably well. For those of you who do not love “the beautiful game” that is the end of that although the domestic season is merely days away now.
My other two staples of blog entries are breakfast and the weather so I’ll do breakfast first and it rarely changes although, in an unusual departure it was bacon sarnies (Brit slang for sandwiches), orange juice and coffee today which is not usual but I do like a bacon buttie (more Brit slang) now and again. I have posted photographic evidence of same here! I did hear once that the majority of vegetarians who go back to being carnivores do so because they want to eat bacon. This was borne out as one of my Father’s carers came round when I was “slaving over a hot stove” and the incomparable smell of bacon wafting about the kitchen. She told me that although she had eaten recently that her mouth was watering with the smell. I genuinely feel sorry for those that for religious or dietary reasons cannot enjoy this quintessentially British item that has kept armies of builders and the like going since time immemorial.
Other than that it has been fries all the way so I’ll include another image here of one of my better efforts. This really is causing my poor Father some bemusement as he regularly sees me photographing whatever I am about to eat and, on the odd occasions my sister-in-law does not cook for him, what I have prepared to eat for him. I suppose he has a point but I reckon I shall have enough for a decent gallery of “Fry-ups of Northern Ireland” when this little jaunt comes to an end. I promise to post a warning at the top of it so you can pass quickly on if you do not want to induce a heart attack at the mere sight of my cholesterol-laden offerings.
The third part of my unholy triumvirate of topics here is the weather, that perennial staple of conversation here, and I really do not know where to start. I have been telling you about the record-breaking heatwave we had been having but, with it being Northern Ireland, that didn’t last. We had been hearing horror stories on the TV news from farmers (are they ever happy) that there would be no carrots for Xmas dinner as the crops were failing, we had a hosepipe ban and so on and everyone was praying for rain. Be careful what you wish for as last weekend not ten miles from here in Lurgan there were homes and businesses destroyed by flash floods. Today was absolutely awful with rain all day being driven by a blustery and none too warm wind.
In due course I shall get round to writing a series of entries here about my wonderful trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year where I had enjoyed 30 degree temperatures every day and watched TV images of Western Europe gripped by blizzards and battered by Atlantic storms. Six months later and we are having a heatwave and flooding in the space of a few days. What is going on with this weather?
In local news (as they say on TV) we have had what they refer to as “the marching season” in Northern Ireland which can be a lively time of year to say the least. Without boring you it revolves around a series of marches by the Orange Order which is a Loyalist organisation and which have caused (the marches, that is) untold trouble in years past for reasons mired in centuries of history in this all too volatile country.
Traditionally, the “11th night” i.e. the eve of the marches was a time when huge “bonies” (bonfires) were lit and when I say huge I mean huge. Vast pyres of wooden pallets and tyres were constructed over a period of weeks if not months and usually dwarfed the surrounding buildings leading to all sorts of issues for the Fire Brigade. There were some problems this year when contractors, who had to wear ski masks to avoid reprisals. were brought in to dismantle some of them. Yes, when I say that things have changed out of all recognition since when I left, there is still an undercurrent of fear which I think will last for many generations. I should be clear here and say that the visitor has absolutely nothing to fear because, as I mentioned, we are the friendliest people imaginable towards outsiders, it is purely an internal friction.
With the bonfires done, the marches themselves passed relatively quietly but all things are relative, especially here. In the lead-up to the marches there had been all sorts of trouble in the City side of Londonderry / Derry (they cannot even agree on the name) at the interface between the Nationalist and Loyalist areas with shooting incidents and so on. They have been roundly condemned, and rightly so, by community leaders on all sides and seem to have calmed down and yet again I must stress to the potential visitor that they have nothing to fear from this as they would need to be Hellishly unlucky to stumble upon it accidentally.
I have some more observations to make about the last few weeks but, as usual here, time is against me and the delightful Sam is going to kick me out of the bar shortly so that is my internet done until tomorrow. I think that if I work quickly I can get this posted and the further observations will wait so stay tuned and spread the word.