The days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the 6th, 7th and 8th June passed passed fairly unremarkably with me sitting in the back garden reading a succession of good books. My late Mother was a prodigious reader and instilled a love of reading in me. She left an extensive library at home which I still have not managed to wade my way through and my complete inability to walk past a charity shop without checking out the book section means that I have plenty of choice.
I say the days were unremarkable and certainly my activites were but there is one matter that is definitely worthy of mention here and will cause raised eyebrows amongst anyone reading this who may have ever visited the Province.
The island of Ireland is stuck in the Atlantic Ocean on the Western fringe of Europe and consequently gets the weather coming East across that huge expanse of water which usually consists of more water. For meteorological reasons which I do actually understand but won’t bore you with there is a lot of rain here and the relatively Northern latitude coupled with the maritime influence means that it never usually gets overly hot. It was with complete amazement therefore that I spent three days sitting with my shirt off, shorts and flip-flops on and roasting myself in what can only be described as a heatwave. It was upper mid 20’s each day with high UV levels and it was truly glorious.
An indication of how bright it was is that I was able to read a standard print book comfortably without my customary reading glasses. I have done that before but it has been in places like the Algarve and Sri Lanka and I really did not expect it in Tandragee. I am certainly not complaining but it did surprise me a bit.
I mentioned that I was wearing shorts and thereby hangs another tale. For obvious reasons I had not packed any but my sister in law came to the rescue and brought me round three pairs which my (sole) nephew had outgrown. I had met him the day I got back and I could not believe it when he walked in the room. I had not seen him for some time and had a mental image of him as a tall but fairly slim schoolboy. He has just turned 20, is studying at University and has taken to going to the gym which has bulked him up no end. He really is quite a unit now and would make a useful rugby player but, to my regret, has no interest in doing so. I suspect he takes after his Father (my brother) who is a keen spectator but never really played much. I loved playing although without any distinction but my Father represented Ulster at inter-Provincial level in the 1950’s and continued playing social rugby into his 40’s. I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times for a wonderful veterans team called the Malone Tornadoes.
On the Friday morning my Father announced that he was going to mow the lawn. I said that I would do it but he would not hear of it as, despite his recent ill-health, he loves pottering about in the garden. Certainly my brother does the heavier work but it is effectively my Dad’s garden and if you have a look at the attached image I think you’ll agree that he keeps it very tidy.
There was one other small event of note on the Friday which demonstrates the legendary generosity of Northern Ireland people and the bond between musicians worldwide.
I believe I mentioned that my Father has carers who call and who I must say are very good. One of them is called Lana and she has red hair and lots of very well-done tattoos. When I say red hair I do not mean that in the tradtional sense of the stereotypical “Irish red-haired colleen” but something rather more crimson and obviously out of a bottle. I must say it suits her.
Under normal circumstances I would not subject a young lady to the sight of my ageing torso but I did not hear her approach to find me with no shirt on. She spotted the guitar tattoo on my back as well as the other two on display, one of which is a song lyric and the other the logo of a rock musician I know, which led to a conversation about tattoos and music. Of necessity it was brief as the ladies are on a tight schedule but I did find out that she was a multi-instrumentalist and played in a rock / blues band called Obsidian who had a gig the following night in Armagh to which she invited me but there was no way I could have got home late at night save walking about 12 miles which I didn’t really fancy.
She went on her way and I thought she had gone but a moment later she returned with the CD and sticker you see pictured. I asked her how much the CD was but she would not hear of it. Having been involved in the music game for some years I know that “merch” (merchandise) is often a necessary financial supplement to appearance fees for unsigned bands. With modern technology no more advanced than a PC you can burn CDs easily enough but this is professionally produced and the packaging is very slick. I particularly like the artwork which is the work of a local artist called Kevin Mahoney and struck me as very 70’s prog rock, which I love. For some reason I could not get the cover of the excellent “Wizards and Demons” album by Uriah Heep out of my head. Whilst I never had the opportunity to see Heep in their heyday I was fortunate enough to watch them perform the entire album at a festival near my home in London a few years ago.
By way of yet another deviation which I promise is the final one for this entry, I have actually played on the same stage as Uriah Heep. Admittedly it was not on the same night but what the heck.
Some years ago, I toured Sweden and Finland with a group of Irish dancers called the Irish Folk Ballet company. There were ten young female dancers, two equally young male dancers, a wonderful fiddle player called Lynne Butler, your humble narrator on guitar and vocals and two lunatic Finnish roadies named Kristal (yes, really, but we called him Kris) and Vesku. Our agents thought it was a good idea to send us up near the Arctic Circle in February and March and when we got to Vaasa it was -26C i.e. bloody cold.
One day we played two shows in the magnificent Tonhalle in Sundsvall in Sweden which is possibly the best venue I have ever played. Between the shows we were asked to sign a publicity poster which someone had put in a huge visitors book for everyone who had played there. With that done, I had a flick through the pages to see who had been there before and found out that Uriah Heep had played there only a few weeks previously. As if the 800+ crowd was not enough of an adrenaline rush, it really gave me a buzz to think I had fluked playing on a stage so recently graced by genuine prog rock legends. For the record, it was one of the best gigs of the tour. I cannot believe the agents were apologising that one of the shows had about 50 empty seats although the other was over-subscribed. I was used to playing to 50 people in a pub!
That is the somewhat meandering story of my unlikely early June sunbathing adventure in Northern Ireland, unlikely as it sounds but enough is enough and I was actually burning a bit so I’ll get my shirt on in the next instalment and get out of the back garden, pleasant as it is.
The 9th of June was a Saturday and the day I was due to return to London but I had changed my plans and decided to stay on for a while. Being retired I have the luxury of being able to do that. I had a couple of social engagements planned for the next weekend with old friends from the Virtual Tourist website but they were very understanding when I explained the situation. I do hope we can get together again soon as the phenomenal community spirit was perhaps the one aspect of VT that set it head and shoulders above any other travel related website. I have some knowledge as I have contributed to several over the years and VT really was unique.
A measure of the strong friendships formed is that long after the site was so disgracefully axed by the totally immoral and discredited Tr#pAdv&s%r (the typos are deliberate to avoid adding another mention of their reviled name for search engines to find) there are still annual Euromeets. Although I could not attend the 2018 event in Iceland, I did manage to get to the 2017 gathering in Kempten im Allgau in Southern Germany. The story of how I got there is a bit of a saga and may well form the basis of my next set of entries here.
Kempten was a great weekend with over 50 attendees and all because of a website that we could not even use for communication through any more. Although I do not use it I believe there is still a very active VT group on Facebook and at time of writing there is an online vote going on to decide between Newcastle-upon-Tyne in UK and Plovdiv in Bulgaria for the 2019 event. Both “bids” are from personal friends and I know either will prove to be a great success. I know that the majority of my small number of readers are old VT friends but if anyone else comes upon this entry and would be interested please get in touch with me and I shall put you in touch with the relevant people. Whilst the whole event was born out of a shared love of the website we are most definitely not prone to cliques and are a very sociable bunch with new people made most welcome.
As I do conversationally I am digressing again but as it is my website I can (cue evil film villian laugh c.1930). I shall have to guard against megalomania before I start hatching plans for world domination! Back therefore to a Saturday morning in Tandragee.
The day did not start well as it was today that I learned from the TV news of the very sad death by suicide of the renowned celebrity chef Tony Bourdain. I have mentioned before that I love cooking, cookbooks, cookery programmes and everything to do with the culinary art. It is just the eating part I have trouble with. I first became aware of him many years ago when a friend, knowing of my love of cookery, recommended his excellent book Kitchen Confidential which was a very much “warts and all” expose of the wirkings of professional kitchens. Tony started off washing pots in a New England seafood restaurant and eventually worked his way up to being one of the top chefs in the USA.
Much of the book focused on the appalling conditions faced by kitchen workers, often illegal immigrants, in the USA and this was an issue he fought tirelessly to change. It was a brutally honest piece which detailed his drug and alcohol abuse in the 1980s including stories about he and another chef staying awake in a chemically induced haze in order to prepare a completely over the top buffet and with much of the work being done in the freezer in well sub zero conditions. He certainly did not pull his punches and whilst I do not know where my copy of it has gone I shall have to acquire another one. It is too long since I read it.
Not only was he a world class chef with awards coming out of his ears but he was an inveterate traveller and many of his journies were recorded for various American TV shows like “No Reservation Required”. For a chef of his stature he was equally happy eating foie gras and truffle in a Michelin starred Parisian restaurant or sitting on a plastic stool in country X, Y or Z feasting on some obscure dish with the locals. This chimes very much with my own notions of travelling except that I tend more to the plastic seat than the Michelin star.
There are many TV chefs who do that like Greg Fiori, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein (a favourite of mine), the late Keith Floyd (utterly brilliant and he would never be allowed to broadcast as he did in these politically correct days), the Hairy Bikers (more favourites and not even trained chefs) etc. etc. but Tony went a bit further in a way that was quite personal to me.
I have spoken above about the Virtual Tourist website which I loved before it was destroyed by a totally immoral bottom feeder called Kaufer. Some years ago Tony was a guest contributor to that site and I loved reading his pieces. He certainly was not getting paid a fortune as there was not a fortune to give, he did it for the love of the thing, love of travelling, love of what we had on VT which was so very special as I hope I have demonstrated.
That a man of his obvious talents and passion should die at his own hand without having shown any signs of it coming is nothing short of tragic. I know I am not alone in mourning the death of a man like Tony Bourdain. RIP, my friend.
After a little early morning mist had burned off it was another lovely day but I had roasted myself enough the previous three days and so I caught one of the three buses that run into Portadown on a Saturday. I know I mentioned this before but small towns and villages in Northern Ireland really are poorly served by public transport. I cannot see how anyone could live here without their own transport, especially if you have a family. In fairness to Ulsterbus, the buses they do run on the Tandragee route are always very punctual but I just wish there were more of them.
The first places I visited were the charity shops which appear to dominate the town now with the only new shops opening appearing to be grocery shops catering to the huge influx of Eastern European immigrants that have arrived. Every time I go back to Portadown and walk through the centre I see more and more shops closed and the heart really is being torn out of it. Even my old guitar shop has shut (as has the one in nearby Lurgan) and I now have to travel miles to either Newry or Lisburn to get even a few basic accessories. Like the rest of the UK everyone seems happy to shop in big out of town shopping centres of which there are plenty and inevitably this squeezes smaller businesses out in town centres. It also reinforces my earlier point about the absolute need to have your own transport in order to get to these centres.
This economic malaise is not restricted to Portadown and seems to be regrettably all too common in Northern Ireland. I was talking to an old friend the other night and he told me it is the same all over the Province apart from Belfast which is booming, largely due to the huge investment associated with the so-called “peace dividend”. It appears the £ / $ / € just don’t get far outside the capital.
Whilst I lament the loss of the traditional High Street, I am a great fan of charity shops and simply cannot pass one without checking out the book section. I cannot remember the last time I bought a book from a proper bookshop and I picked up another couple for a fraction of the published price. I think I have about six unread books on my bedside table now but I just cannot resist.
After my trawl of the charity shops it was off to Joe Mac’s for a pint. Whilst I was there I had a read of the local daily newspaper and amongst the usual petty sectarian political squabbling and much talk about “Brexit” (very topical as I am typing this a mere 15 miles from the border) was a story about a man who had been sentenced to nine months imprisonment for running two brothels in Belfast. Vile as that particular crime is it was not what caught my attention. I have reproduced the article here but if it is not clear enough on whatever device you may be using he was called Catalin Vasile Manea which instantly gave me a clue, confirmed by the next phrase “originally from Romania” and leads me to a few observations about the country of my birth.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s there were virtually no non-indigenous people in Northern Ireland save for a very small Chinese population who were almost exclusively involved in the restaurant business. One of my earliest memories is of being taken to one of the two Chinese restaurants in Londonderry where we lived at the time. It was a birthday treat and I reckon it must have been about 1967 or 68. After half a century I cannot be sure but something tells me I had chop suey which I had never had before and which instilled in me a deep love for Chinese cuisine which remains to this day. Whilst the food was a revelation it was the staff that made the greatest impression on me as I had never seen anyone that looked like them before even in books and certainly not in the flesh. Northern Ireland really was that parochial back then.
In regard to non-indigenous people I was in quite an unusual position in that I used to chum about with a lad called Jimmy Niagra who lived nearby. Jimmy’s family were from Mauritius and to this day I have no idea how they had ended up in Ulster but our friendship led to another culinary first for me. I remember my Mother having to show me where Mauritius actually was in an atlas and at eight or nine years of age I could not even comprehend how far away it was.
Mrs. Niagra had invited me to tea one evening and my Mother agreed. It was very close by and in those carefree days before “the Troubles” started so I went down by myself to Jimmy’s house where we played outside for a while. When we were called in to eat I was presented with a plate of something that looked vaguely like the stews I was so used to although not quite the same. When I took a mouthful I knew it was not like any stew my Mother or Grandmothers made. It was very different and quite unlike anything I had ever tasted before. You are probably ahead of me here, dear reader, but I had just had my first curry and I loved it.
I am sure Mrs. Niagra took it easy on the “heat” of the curry and, on reflection, I wonder where she got the spices. They must have been sent from her native country as I am quite sure there would have been none of the exotic seasonings we are so accustomed to now available back then. I remember going home that evening and gabbling on to my Mother about this funny tasting stew and asked her if she would make it for me. Unsurprisingly, I cannot remember it ever appearing on my plate.
My first curry led to a lifelong love affair with the genre and I could easily live on the stuff, in fact I do when I stay with my friend in Sri Lanka. Enough then of my childhood reminiscing and fast-forward to Portadown where I moved in 1981.
In the ninth decade of the 20th century, non-white people were still a rarity in the town and indeed Co. Armagh although there were a few more round Belfast than there had been in the 60’s and 70’s. I knew of two mixed race families in Portadown and that was about it. It was after I left and in the closing years of the last Millennium and first years of this one that the first major wave of immigration took place courtesy of the EU when there was a large influx of Portuguese into the town. I have asked many people the reason and nobody seems to know exactly although I suspect that it is the age old process of a few immigrants coming and then others coming to join them on the principle of sticking together in a foreign country. What I do know is that most of them went to work in the Moypark chicken factory nearby although I do not know if that is still true.
I first heard of this from my late Mother who had volunteered in one of the charity shops in town before she became too ill. She told me that groups of Portuguese women would come into the shop and literally buy up everything in sight. My Mother, being my Mother, took it upon herself in her 70’s to learn some basic conversational Portuguese to converse with them. She really was some woman. I shall return to this Portuguese influence in a moment.
The second wave of immigration came with the accession of a number of other countries in 2004 when the UK was the destination of choice for a huge number of “Eastern Europeans”, specifically Poles in numbers that the Government of the day had underestimated by a factor of 10. With “the Troubles” more or less over, Northern Ireland received it’s share of these immigrants and I have already mentioned the presence of shops catering specifically for them. It suits me fine as I am partial to Polish cuisine and I can easily pick up a few bits and pieces. Older Northern Irish people tend to be quite conservative in their culinary tastes and I remember once making up a packet of flaki (tripe soup) at home and explaining what it was to my Father. His expression was priceless.
What I am going to say now will possibly be controversial but is backed up by plenty of verifiable evidence including the newspaper report that triggered this whole portion of the entry. For the relatively small numbers of Romanians currently in UK where they can come perfectly legally, there seems to be a disproportionate percentage involved in crime, specifically prostitution and people trafficking. I do not wish to further digress into the matter of prostitution and the pros (no pun intended) and cons of legalising it but I do find pimps amongst the lowest forms of life and I do hope Catalin Vasile Manea receives the kind of reception he deserves in Her Majesty’s Prison but back now to Portadown.
Walking down Woodhouse Street I wandered into the Oak Bar and I may as well have been walking into a bar in Albufeira or Funchal as it really was a slice of Portugal.
There was a Portuguese sports channel on TV, a Portuguese bar snack menu and Portuguese was the predominant language amongst both staff and customers, although I did have a chat with a local couple sitting next to me at the bar.
It was not like this the last time I was there a few years ago but I found it unsurprising for reasons as explained above.
Another short walk took me to McKeevers bar which is yet another beauty of an old-fashioned place although not nearly as old as McConville’s which I mentioned in an earlier entry. As you can see from the image it only dates to 1944. but it appears to be fairly well unchanged since then and they still serve an excellent pint of Guinness. It was only when I was leaving that I noticed the poster for Long Meadow Cider which I had never heard of despite me being a big cider fan and which was apparently made by the McKeever family not far away. Some relatives of the publican presumably.
The interesting thing about the last two pubs mentioned is that, whilst I have visited them on subsequent trips home, I never drank in them when I lived here. Such was the tribalism then in vogue that I was the “wrong side” to drink in either of these establishments. Certainly there is still a lot of organised crime controlled by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland but things really have moved on a lot and I feel quite comfortable in any pub in the town now.
My last port of call was McConville’s again as it is pretty close to the bus stop in Carleton Street and I had my pint of Guinness ordered before I noticed that they sold the Long Meadow cider I had seen advertised in McKeevers so I had a bottle of it before I went. It is a little sweet for my taste but a decent drop nonetheless.
I mentioned in a previous entry about how I was plied with Guinness one evening and talked into playing a cannibal queen in a pantomime in a meeting held in a snug here in McConvilles. I enclose here an image of the very table over which the deed was done.
On the bus then and off home for my dinner, a bit more journal writing and reading and then bed.
There is more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.