I like photographs. Taking them and looking at them. There are places that are photographed a lot. Of the two thirds of a billion photos taken each year that aren’t selfies, a fair few of them must be of Edinburgh Castle or Stirling or the British Museum or even Dunbar. I was just choosing a photo to illustrate a post which will appear in December about my East Lothian accent and I chose one of the Victoria Harbour in Dunbar, a scene that appears on many a postcard of my home town. It seemed right for the post but it got me to thinking of how many places suffer from having the same photographs taken of them again and again. As a public service, here are a few photos I’ve taken of fairly well-known places. Hopefully they have only been taken a few hundred times, as opposed to a few million or whatever.
Sometimes I am inspired to write posts by what I read. The other morning, I was catching up with a couple of months’ worth of entries from Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin and came across one of the many cracking, succinctly-phrased lines from that magnificent volume:
‘Every now and again you find yourself slipping into a little pocket, a little envelope, of country that is unknown to anyone else, which feels as though it is your own secret land’.
Connections sometimes emerge between different things I read and what I have read previously. One of my favourite poems is ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats and Roger’s words about secret lands remind me about that isle, being alone in a bee-loud glade and peace dropping slow. Then it occurred to me that Nan Shepherd had written in a similar vein in The Living Mountain, the book that rivals Notes From Walnut Tree Farm in being what I would take to a desert island. Nan Shepherd writes about a particular loch high in the Cairngorms and writes that its ‘inaccessibility…is part of its power…It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness’.
I am not a mountain climber. One day I would like to but it hasn’t happened yet. The last time I was in a place and felt I was in a secret land was when I was walking in the John Muir Country Park near Dunbar a month or two ago. I was amidst the trees and was back in the midst of my childhood, feeling entirely at peace in this place. Being alone there wasn’t a bad thing because I could think free about my time there long ago without being confined by words or sharing the experience with someone else. I spend a lot of my life putting things into words but sometimes there’s times when words aren’t needed. John Muir wrote once that ‘writing is a cold medium for heart-hot ideas’ and it’s true a lot of the time. Putting this idea into words has been harder than thinking it but that’s true most of the time, I think. Hedderwick isn’t a secret place. It’s near the A1 and many people walk there every single day. Some kids had a party to celebrate their exams finishing the other week. There is still a resonance and meaning there that is unique to me, for no one else has my particular set of life experiences and filters to see them through. It still felt like a secret land, particularly for much of the time I was there when I was alone with my thoughts in the dunes between the trees.
There is a major difference between being lonely and being alone. I have known both. Being with someone else doesn’t mean you can’t fully appreciate a particular place. Indeed a shared thought can build a better insight. Being alone helps me recharge. That walk in John Muir was brilliant, in no small part because I was alone and able to think for hours, to be where I was, to enjoy that and process the last few months since I was last in Dunbar. I always think better when I’m a wee bit removed from life and being in a perpetual place only made it better that particular day. I can’t arise now and go, unfortunately, since I have a life and work and stuff like that. But I can do what Norman MacCaig did. He lived most of the year in Edinburgh but spent his long summer holidays in Assynt. When he reached Assynt, he ‘fattened his camel’s hump’ with inspiration and ideas to fill his poems for the rest of the year. I do the same whenever I travel and particularly when I am back in East Lothian. Even a glance across the Forth from Fife or on a webcam can satisfy any yearnings if my stores are low. It isn’t quite a secret land but it will do for me.
From tomorrow night, for the following 10 days or so, I will be on holiday. In that spirit, I’m going to repost some of the better recent posts on the next couple of Wednesdays and Sundays. The blog is all about the writing for me and what will appear here will be some no’ bad words. There will also be a repost next Friday of the Conrad Logan post, in honour of Hibs being in the semi final of the Cup.
Tonight’s offering is ‘Still a country bumpkin’, which is about food and poetry. Sunday’s will be all about Craster in Northumberland. Enjoy.
To some extent, I am still a bit of a country bumpkin. I am a product of my upbringing but I am also autistic and a fussy person when it comes to food. I am getting better. My love of croissants, for example, came after a meeting I had with an employment adviser in Edinburgh when he shared his breakfast of an almond croissant with me. I tend to be more adventurous when there isn’t a choice. For example, recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner and almost everything I ate and otherwise consumed that evening was unknown to me, with the sole exception of a French martini, which I had tried on a previous visit. I enjoyed it too, not just the food and company but encountering something new. I spend a lot of my leisure time travelling but it isn’t entirely new as an experience. Spending time on buses and trains is familiar and comfortable. Eating chilli or broccoli soup isn’t. Neither is being social, at least to start with.
The reason I mention it is the serendipity that sometimes happens when you are thinking about something and the world responds to it. I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter called Lunchtime Poetry, put together by Laura Waddell of Freight Books. I think I have written about it before in the context of Pablo Neruda. One of the poems a couple of weeks ago was ‘Naming it’ by Leontia Flynn, published in 2004, which reads:
Five years out of school and preachy
with booklearning, it is good to be discovered
as a marauding child.
To think the gloomiest most baffled
misadventures might lead so suddenly
to a clearing – as when a friend
taking me to her well-stocked fridge says:
this is an avocado and this
is an aubergine.
I should add that to my knowledge I have never encountered an avocado or an aubergine. This poem is 54 words long and contains at least three moments that give me pause. I am just shy of ten years out of school though while I can be preachy at times, hopefully what comes out of my puss isn’t always booklearning. Hopefully I am still a marauding child, though, or at least a marauding man-child. I am still on the hunt for new experiences and adventures, or more likely baffled misadventures, which seems like a neat description of much of my life to date.
Leontia Flynn, incidentally, I hadn’t encountered before. I’m glad I did. I just looked at her website and she is from Northern Ireland, County Down to be precise, though now lives in Belfast. Read some of the poems on her website, ‘The Vibrator’ particularly is excellent. They are neatly worked poems, conveying a lot with not a lot, the best kind of poetry with those that take the feet out from under you with just a few stray words.
The newspapers this time of year are invariably full of features about the ‘Best of the Year’. I have already seen loads of such space-filling articles about the best of this year’s books and as ever, they puffed up books that in nearly all cases I hadn’t read and would need several lifetimes to read. My personal favourite was in The Herald where one writer mentioned an obscure pamphlet some of her friends had written with the words ‘if you can find it’. I believe that is what Private Eye would call log-rolling, par excellence.
Anyway, this will be a ‘Best of 2016’ post but since this is a travel blog, we will be focusing on the best places I’ve been this year, like I did last year. The categories last year were:
Best art gallery
Best historic place
Best place to watch football
Best fish supper
Reviewing last year’s post, I noticed that at the end, I listed five places I wanted to get to this year – Dunnottar Castle, Tantallon Castle, Oxford, Bristol and Stornoway. How many of them have I reached? None. There’s always 2017. So, rather than recriminating, let’s get into those places that have enriched my 2016, beginning with the best museum.
Best Museum – Ulster Museum, Belfast –
Without a shadow of a doubt. This was a very easy choice. When I was in Belfast in August, I went to the UM three out of the four days, spending ages wandering about its history, science, natural history and art collections, as happy as a pig in some kind of manure. As much as the art was probably my favourite bit, kudos to the curator who had the bright idea of creating a replica of a pastoral painting featuring a dragon, in a tribute to Game of Thrones.
Post – Ulster Museum
Runner-up – The Ulster Transport Museum, Cultra, near Belfast –
Another Northern Irish choice, partly down to customer service (the person behind the counter could have charged me full whack to get into the Folk Museum up the road too) but mainly due to the incredible transport and social history collections, of old trains, buses, vans and a sedan chair.
Post – Trains and that
Honourable Mention – Science Museum, London –
A new visit for me this year but full of wonder and joy, including bits of lighthouses, lunar modules and Ada Lovelace’s early computer.
Post – An island light
Best art gallery – Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy, Fife –
My favourite art gallery in the land. I can easily spend an hour in its four or five rooms amongst its fine collection of mainly Scottish art, from the Colourists, Glasgow Boys and William McTaggart. It is an easy trip for me and necessary every few months for a top-up.
Runner-up – Fergusson Gallery, Perth –
I like JD Fergusson. This was mainly for the building as well as the surprisingly subtle and well-done exhibition about nudes I saw there earlier this year.
Post – Perth
Best historic place – Necropolis, Glasgow –
This was a hard one, another new place but one with incredible views and which can change your perspective on a lot of things too. I even felt some local pride when I encountered the tomb of John and Isabella Elder, who donated the money to build Elder Park Library in Govan.
Runner-up – Culross, Fife –
A place on my list for many years, 16th century architecture but firmly living in the 21st century, a conservation village with pragmatism about its selling points. In short, it’s sexy and it knows it, beautiful and historic. Looking forward to another trip soon.
Post – Culross
Best library – Any one I work in, obviously.
Runner-up – Marsh’s Library, Dublin –
Marsh’s Library is an old library behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. I left after an hour enriched by spending some time amongst its stacks and just being in the place. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Best three euros spent in a while.
Best place to watch football – South Stand, Hampden Park, Glasgow, on Saturday 21st May 2016 about 4.52 pm –
Still can’t believe it. ‘It’s Liam Henderson to deliver!’ ‘It’s been 114 years. Now it’s not even been 114 seconds!’ And so on.
Runner-up – East Stand, Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 16th February 2016 –
The Hearts replay at Easter Road. Probably led to Robbie Neilson’s departure from Tynecastle as I write this in the dying moments of November.
Best fish supper – Cromar’s, Union Street, St. Andrews, Fife –
Another new entry and a very fine chip shop indeed. Absolutely mobbed when there in the summer but a fine scran. All the more memorable for the persistent mooching seagulls who would not leave the bonnet of the car despite being repeatedly shooed away.
Runner-up – The Tailend, Leith Walk, Edinburgh –
I had a fish supper before one of Hibs’ evening games at the end of last season, scranned sitting in Leith Links in the capital. Very, very braw indeed.
Best park – Queen’s Park, Glasgow –
For the view from the flagpole across this great city, on grey days and sunny days, on the 21st of May and on other days when wondering what to do.
Runner-up – Leith Links, Leith, Edinburgh –
For the parade on 22nd May, when thousands of Hibees saw what they dared dream about only rarely. For smiles that still haven’t quite dimmed and when it is always time for heroes.
Best beach – Belhaven Bay, near Dunbar, East Lothian –
‘The curve of the bay opens out into the Firth of Forth with the Bass Rock and the Isle of May out into the distance. A place full of memories but never fails to wash my spirit clean. Usually because it’s bloody windy.’
Last year’s entry still true and it’s still the best place on the face of the earth.
Runner-up – Kev’s Beach, near St. Abbs, Berwickshire –
Now, ‘Kev’s Beach’ is not what it’s called on the Ordnance Survey maps. It is near St. Abbs Head, in what I believe is called Horsecastle Bay, as you walk down from the cliffs that lead from St. Abbs to the Head. It is a little secluded bit with rocks at either side, a pebbly beach and cove. Short of it having an official name, I hereby declare it ‘Kev’s Beach’, for there are few better places on the planet to be than St. Abbs and to rest your tired feet in the water and listen to the waves and pebbles caressed by them as they come to shore.
Honourable Mention – Prestwick, South Ayrshire –
For the walk I had a few weeks ago in the sunset casting changing, gorgeous colours across the Clyde, Arran and the Ailsa Craig.
So, that’s the best of 2016. Who knows what next year will bring? We could hardly have guessed what this year has brought. Let’s hope next year, 2017, will be better for the world. My year personally has had many blessings and I am thankful for what I have been able to experience this year. Have a very lovely New Year.
This is the two hundredth post here on Walking Talking. I don’t know what you get for doing something 200 times. Writer’s block, probably, or cramp. Anyway, I wanted to write a little something about why I do this, why I write and why I like to travel. Some of it can be neatly encapsulated by this photograph, taken in Leith back in May:
I have been writing for most of my life. The first time I ever remember writing was when I was at primary school and I edited the class newspaper, The Christie Miller News. When I was a teenager, I wrote poems and stories like they were falling out of me. I was a big reader and so a lot of what I wrote then was influenced by what I read. In one story I wrote, a band the characters formed was named after a line in a Pablo Neruda poem. I wrote poems about a lot of things. They’re shite so you’ll never see them. Plus I’ve moved a few times so they’ve probably ended up pulped and recycled long before now.
For a lot of years, I have written stories and I use them to work through issues. I write them like a script, with dialogues and not a lot of exposition. I can’t be arsed with the ‘he said, she said’ stuff of novels, though I do that from time to time. Again, you won’t see them here but they have helped me improve significantly in my writing. I aim for simplicity and in writing, that can only be achieved by doing it a lot.
The blog you are reading now came out of two things. In the summer of 2015, I attended a creative writing class at Strathclyde University, partly as a way to fill an evening but partly as a bit of self-investment. I wrote a story, a real one, based on an idea I had been thinking about for years about an autistic superhero. It ended up being a silly piece about a superhero joining a trade union. Anyway, around the same time, a friend encouraged me to put my writing skills to good use by starting a blog. Being stubborn, I did hee-haw about it for a few weeks until I was up late one night and ended up starting this. I liked it so I wrote a bit more then a bit more after that. Somehow this blog has a few readers and that’s nice. I write because I enjoy it and it helps me make sense of things. From being about travelling to start with, it has snowballed a bit featuring posts about autism, politics, humanism, football, literature and maps, and that’s just off the top of my head.
Why I like to travel is a bit harder to explain. I grew up in Dunbar, on the east coast of Scotland, though went to primary school in Edinburgh. Every morning a taxi arrived to convey me into the city and that quickly became routine. My class often went out and about into the world, on trips and Magical Mystery Tours (as I think I wrote about in the Dunfermline post). With family, I went to quite a few places too and so my love of travelling grew, though it only really got to manifest itself after I left school. Every Saturday, and then most weeks, I went on a day trip somewhere in southern Scotland and northern England, sometimes with other people, most of the time on my own. Sometimes the destination was determined by financial considerations, though as time went on and I worked more, I had much more choice.
Living in Dunbar meant my day trips invariably had an east-coast bias. Edinburgh factored most weeks, Fife, Newcastle, Durham and Northumberland. Glasgow was an once-a-month place. Usually I went by train, reliant on a limited timetable of express trains calling at Dunbar now and then, though sometimes a bus was called upon if the timetable just didn’t suit. Soon bigger day trips happened. By the time I moved, the furthest north I had been was Aberdeen, south to York and London, west to Ayr and Alloway.
Moving to Glasgow was a very dramatic change in my life in all sorts of ways. For the first few months, I spent part of the week working in East Lothian and the rest in Glasgow. The scope for day trips expanded considerably. The early days of 2014 saw the first day trip by plane (but not the last), going back to Dublin. Being located in the west meant that I could take advantage of this great city’s fine transport links. One Saturday day trip took me to Oban, another weekday led me down on the X74 to Dumfries, on a bus that promptly broke down just near the Forest of Ae. Further afield, Liverpool and Manchester became much more accessible. Day trip destinations that used to take hours can now be reached in barely half an hour. I can (and often do) go to Kelvingrove on a Sunday afternoon. In short, it is no longer an event but still something I enjoy greatly.
‘The things I love are not at home’. I should say that many of the people I love are here in Glasgow but they aren’t things. I am not a material person. My proudest possession at this current moment in time is a (much-depleted) packet of caramel digestive biscuits. I always say that anything I want I can’t buy and it’s true. Hibs won the Scottish Cup this year and while I paid for my ticket for the Final, the feelings I (and many others) had on the final whistle were priceless.
It is true, however, that the feeling I get each time I set out cannot be replicated sitting in the house. It is the best feeling, the feeling of freedom, the wondering of where will I go and how I will do it. There has to be a sense of wonder or the game’s a bogey. I have been to some places that aren’t necessarily on the tourist trail and still my mind has been subtly blown by something. To get to Falkland Palace from here requires changing bus in Glenrothes, one of Scotland’s New Towns. To be fair, Glenrothes is not nice. It is the only place where I’ve seen someone getting their head caved in at the bus station in full view of about 50 people. It is also very concrete and dull, to be honest, like most New Towns. The first time I went to Falkland, the bus went by a church which looked like a fire station. The church had given its name to the adjoining roundabout, which had the fabulously inappropriate name of St. Columba’s Roundabout, complete with a Celtic cross floral arrangement in the middle. I am sure St. Columba, when he came to Iona in 563 AD, would have been delighted that a part of his legacy in these islands was a roundabout in Glenrothes.
Edinburgh usually works as a day trip destination because I know it so well. Despite having lived here for three years, I still know the capital better than I do Glasgow, though Glasgow is edging closer as I take different turnings and discover new places. I walked up Calton Hill recently and a lot of things I love were present in a sweep of a view, the Forth, the North Sea, East Lothian and Easter Road, as well as the Fife coastline.
My very first solo day trip destination was Durham. At the time I was at a wee bit of a low ebb in my life but that day gave me some hope that things would be better. Durham was new to me then though I have been there many times since. I have a few abiding memories of that day, of walking around the Cathedral lost in its architectural details and being by the River Wear with its trees drooping low over the river water. I also recall the cute girls jogging by the river too but that’s quite another story.
The day trip concept has evolved considerably since that day in May. It has become international, with day trips to Dublin in the mix. There have been quite a few trips to London in there too. My view of London has developed too. I used to hate the place. I had a couple of bad experiences visiting it when I was younger and I felt really uncomfortable with the crowds, bustle and noise of the place. After a few visits, though, on my own and with others, I have reached a sort of peace with the place. Politically, different story but in most other senses, I can fill a day there quite easily. I still have a long list of places I want to see in the metropolis and more than a few I quite fancy a return to, like Greenwich, Conway Hall and Tate Modern. I have reached the point when I don’t mind a trip down there but like to do it in one day so I can go to sleep in my own bed that night.
‘The things I love are not at home’. I am lucky that I get a great deal of contentment from being out in the world and that I have a sense of wonder that carries me forth from day to day, well, most of the time. We live in an interesting country. By that I encompass England and Northern Ireland too. I haven’t ever been to Wales but I would like to. For one thing it has castles plus the best accent anywhere except my own, of course.
I have been around a lot of parochial people, who can’t see anything beyond their own particular bit of the river. I always like looking over the crest of a hill, over the horizon, to see what lies beyond. It’s a Dunbar thing. Looking across the sea was something I used to do a lot. Looking in the distance broadens perceptions, minimising one’s ego and making us think more about our place as one of many, one in one spot on a far larger planet. What’s over the horizon can be good, it can be bad too. Sometimes it’s just worth finding out. What you’ll see here might just be the results of that process.
Before I round off the posts about my recent trip to Northern Ireland and Dublin, I wanted to share some photographs of some of the street art I encountered while I was away. The first few photographs will be of Belfast city centre, particularly one mural painted in honour of Belfast Pride.
These are a little bit different, from Dublin this time, of street cable boxes. There are two, near Kildare Street and near the Four Courts, which is the Viking one.
Tomorrow night’s post will be all about an interlude between events at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
DISCLAIMER: This post is not for the squeamish. There will be discussion of bodily functions and possibly even worse actual human life. If you want to keep your lunch down, I suggest scrolling on.
Now, that’s out of the way, we can begin. I have written here about many things but never about having Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. One of the sexier aspects of being autistic is that there are often other things that come as part of the deal, such as anxiety. Stomach conditions are also fairly common for autistic people and I am no exception. Most of the time my IBS manifests itself by making me, basically, full of shit. Like Venice being flooded, I tend to test the Glaswegian sewerage system most of the month. Plus I am often quite farty and that’s just a cost of doing business. As I like to travel a lot on public transport, I very often end up with trapped wind and invariably need to find a quiet corner to deal with that effectively upon arrival. This I can deal with fine and it doesn’t need medication. What’s a lot harder to deal with is when my stomach is cramping, which is less common than it used to be but happens periodically. It happened while I was in Dublin hence I decided to write about it.
For some reason, my stomach doesn’t like Dublin. The rest of me really does but my gut has a great aversion to the Fair City. I’ve been there four times and for three of them, I was playing through the pain barrier. There were points on Monday when my gut felt properly acidic, like I was about to spew up. I took Buscopan, which is anti-spasmodic, though that felt like it was making things worse. I also partook in some paracetamol, which alleviated things only slightly. The previous day, when I went to the Ulster Transport Museum, my stomach had been dodgy, flaring up about an hour after I ate. The only thing I ate that day that didn’t cause me any bother was a packet of Tayto Smoky Bacon crisps. So I had two. I was fine when I woke up the next morning and for the journey down to Dublin but before lunch and after was bad. But I played on. Why? I was in a place that I like but wouldn’t be in again for a while. I don’t like to give up. I’ve worked many days when my stomach was playing up and carried on. There’s a point you just have to.
The good news is that my stomach has been back to normal since. My stomach tends to be worse when I’m travelling but not always. When I went to Cambridge in October and again in February, I was fine. I think the buildup to travelling, the logistics, the what-ifs and all that, that tends to make me more stressed and hence my stomach decides to join in the fun. Thankfully I am not as stressed as I once was and my stomach does not cause as much grief. When it does, though, it adds another dimension to the travelling experience, one I would gladly avoid.
Where we left off the tale of the Dublin adventure, I was finishing lunch at the Chester Beatty Library. I was heading for Marsh’s Library, which I realised was not so far away, at the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. All I knew about it was that it was an old library but when I walked in and paid my €3 entry fee (roughly £2.60), I realised it was so much more than that. The library was founded in 1707, same year as the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England, and is full of old, leather-bound books. They are kept out of reach since some need special conditions but it’s none the worse for that. It was quite possibly the most peaceful library I’ve ever been in and that includes the reading room in Manchester a few weeks ago. Since it is the centenary of the 1916 rising, Marsh’s had a display about it, including some books damaged by bullets in the rising. There was also an exhibition of stories about the darker side of the library. Wonderfully, the library also features cages, where patrons were locked in as a sort of anti-theft device. I’ve known libraries where cages would be actively welcomed, I have to say. I just sat for a while in the still calm just thinking and enjoying the peace dropping slow.
I walked to the LUAS tram stop at Four Courts. The first tram was absolutely mobbed so I got the second, which was only slightly less busy. I was heading to Kilmainham, home of the Gaol where a lot of the leaders of the Easter rising were held then executed. Kilmainham is also where the Royal Hospital is, now home of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately the Gaol was full up, of visitors not prisoners, and the IMMA was closed. I walked in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, though, and when I sat on the grass, I noticed an obelisk somewhere in the distance. Being that kind of dude, I was curious as to what this was.
As it turns out, it was a memorial to the Duke of Wellington, all the way in the Phoenix Park. I walked a little way in the park, intending on taking a look at the Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland. Michael D. Higgins is my kind of head of state, purely because he’s a poet and he makes intellectual speeches about history whenever he’s here in Scotland. You don’t hear the Queen or Barack Obama or whoever doing that. Alas, I didn’t get to do that, purely because I was a bit knackered. The Park was busy with people at Dublin Zoo and just having a nice day in the sunshine. I enjoyed my walk but I was still knackered.
Before I headed back to Belfast, I went to Eason’s, a bookshop/stationer on O’Connell Street. I still had some euros left so bought some papers to read on the bus back north plus a book of WB Yeats’s poems and a magazine called Humanism Ireland, which I sat and read while eating some fast food. I have a proud tradition of reading intellectual things while sitting in fast food places. When I used to do regular day trips on a Saturday, I would read the Guardian book review pages. Anyway, I walked back along to the Busaras and people-watched a bit before catching the 7pm bus back to Belfast, again in the sunshine. The sun was beginning to dip below the horizon near the border, which was rather lovely. The light as the bus crossed the Boyne was that twilight pastel yellow, casting a grey shadow over the fields and trees below. It was a nice end to the day, heading slowly northwards just watching the world go by.
I woke up at an agriculturally early hour on Monday to head for the bus to Dublin. As it was, after going to the shop to pick up snacks, I was an hour early arriving at Europa. After collecting my ticket for the 08:00 bus, I went for a walk around the city centre in the sunshine, particularly admiring Belfast City Hall. (More on that in a later post.)
If you weren’t actively looking for it, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic isn’t obvious any more. There are road signs denoting that the Republic speed limits are in kilometres-per-hour and that’s about it. Plus there are more shops on the NI side selling fireworks (which are illegal in the Republic). Like in Belfast, though, many of the communities in NI fly flags on lampposts just to remind everyone of their allegiances. Much of the way south was marked by Union flags and the Ulster Banner (the one with the Red Hand of Ulster on it) while Newry is more Republican and had more Irish tricolours about the place. Where I was staying in Belfast was quite neutral and there were more rainbow flags than anything, due to Belfast Pride being on over the weekend. Randomly, Belfast had Pride the same time as Glasgow had an Orange walk, which is at least a sign of progress on one side.
After the EU referendum result, there have been a fair few concerns about whether border controls will reemerge between NI and the Republic. I was thinking about that going through Newry, which is only a couple of miles from the border. Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, has promised that there won’t be a return to a hard border but it is hard to see how they will avoid it if the Brexiteers’ promises to restrict immigration can be met. Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted by a majority to Remain though the prospect of them joining the Republic is remote, to say the least. When I left Dublin, though, I wondered what my own citizenship will be when I visit next, whether as a citizen of an independent Scotland within the EU or of Britain outside the EU. We will have to wait and see.
Anyway, enough of the politics. Dublin is one of my favourite cities, the first place I ever went to on holiday myself and a place with excellent museums and galleries. For once, I didn’t have a big action plan for where to go. I had thought about going to Marsh’s Library and Kilmainham but I wasn’t sure how it would quite slot all together. I left Busaras and walked along to O’Connell Street, pausing for a moment by the statue of trade union leader Jim Larkin, who was involved in the 1913 Lockout. The statue features Big Jim with arms aloft as if inciting the people to rise up. When I was in Dublin a couple of years ago, the SIPTU trade union offices on Eden Quay were done up with comic strips all up the building about the events of 1913. On Monday, there were panels about the Irish Citizen Army, a group set up to protect locked-out workers from police brutality. I am a fan of using the media of drawings and comics to get messages across. The Ulster Museum had an exhibition about the First World War which did just that and the SIPTU building is always worth looking at. I am not sure how many Dublin commuters look up at it but it’s worthwhile all the same.
I walked to Merrion Square, not far from the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) and the Natural History Museum, to pay my respects at the memorial to Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted. There were two different people sitting under trees nearby, with one woman playing on a guitar when I walked by at first then reading the second time. The Dermot Morgan monument always makes me think of the immense power of humour to brighten the world up, even just a wee bit. Another thing that brightened my mood as I left was a floral tribute left by Irish members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Not so far away was the National Gallery of Ireland, which was mostly shut for refurbishment. The bit that was open featured some Irish and European art from the 19th century, including some Impressionists. My two favourite paintings were ‘Sunshade’ by William Leech, which features a woman in side profile holding up a green parasol, and ‘Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874’ by Claude Monet, which features a sailboat on a body of water with some autumn trees. I love Monet because of how he renders water and clouds with simple but effective brushstrokes. I liked these two so much that I bought a card of one and a print of another, which sit beside me as I type this. The National Gallery of Ireland is in a modern building rather reminiscent of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh with lots of levels and white-washed walls. It’s always worth a look.
Before heading to the Chester Beatty Library for lunch, I stopped into the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street. In the foyer was an exhibition about the leaders of the 1916 rising, including James Connelly born in the Cowgate in Edinburgh, as well as an interesting panel about the NLI staff who were involved in the rising, some of whom were executed for their part. As a library worker myself, I have to say you have to watch the quiet ones. What I was actually there to see was the permanent display about WB Yeats, which I’ve seen before, and sat a while in the opening display listening to some of his poems read by famous people, including my favourite poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, read by the man himself. ‘Peace dropping slow’ always feels far away from a bustling city but hearing the words takes me a lot closer in spirit.
This might need to be a two-part post. It was an incredibly rich full day so I will finish this account at lunchtime. One of my favourite places in Dublin is the Chester Beatty Library, which has an incredible collection of manuscripts and objects relating to religion, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. I didn’t take that in this time but the priority was visiting possibly the best museum cafe in the land, which serves Middle Eastern cuisine. So, I had a chicken curry, which was absolutely marvellous, and thought about how to spend the rest of the day and how to get there.
Stay tuned for part two of the Dublin adventure.
Sunday was a day when I had deliberately not planned much. Not that I am a Sabbatarian or anything, I always prefer Sunday to be a quieter day, partly because my other day off (Friday) tends to get monopolised a lot of the time. When I was away was no exception. I woke up, had breakfast, sat in the Botanic Gardens for a bit then spent a wonderful morning in the Ulster Museum as written about here.
After that, the day was up for grabs. I had thought about going on a road trip, possibly to Derry-Londonderry or maybe the Giant’s Causeway but realised that since I was going to be travelling to Dublin the next day then home the day after, it was probably worth not going so far. So, I went to Cultra instead, about 7 miles outside Belfast or as my friend put it, like going from Edinburgh to Prestonpans. To get there required using the Northern Ireland railway network, like most parts of transport run by Translink (state-owned, people), which I had never done before. I rocked up to Botanic Station and got a return for about £3.60 on a small strip of paper. None of this printed on orange and yellow card nonsense. I sat on the platform and watched the world go by then realised that the PA announcements for NI Railways, at least the stations, are done in a London accent, in fact by the same voice you hear in big stations in the UK. The rendering of words like Cultra and Bangor was hilarious. (In Scotland’s big railway stations, we have a Glaswegian voice whose pronunciation of Morpeth, in Northumberland, makes me cringe.) Anyway, I boarded a clean and snazzy train (where the announcements were done by the wonderful (and Belfast-born) Kathy Clugston, who is a continuity announcer on Radio 4. You should hear her do the Shipping Forecast) and headed out to Cultra.
Cultra houses the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and I had hoped to do both. Unfortunately I only got there at 2pm and the woman at the ticket desk said I would only have time for one. Thinking on my feet, I said ‘Transport’, paid the admission fee and walked in. She was right. I was in the Transport Museum until shutting time. The first thing you see as you enter on a raised walkway is a massive train shed, full of trains. Trains! The train geek in me came out with my camera as I walked around the place, reading the panels and climbing onto some of the locomotives. It was excellent, really something else.
But that wasn’t all. The building was on three levels, starting with trains then working through buses and vans then finally cars. The second level was reached through an exhibition about the Titanic, though I gave that a bye since it’s kind of everywhere in Belfast. Buses and trams sat on an old street, which was pretty fabulous, as was the third level, which featured a Volkswagen Beetle (I was nearly born in one of those but that’s another story) and a DeLorean, known to most of the visitors as ‘the car out of Back to the Future‘, which still looks cool and space-age. This level also featured a recreated old mechanics’ garage, in 1920s style, which was full of details. I am not a car person but I thought it was very well done.
Down the road a bit was one final building, which featured a gallimaufry of different bits, including racing cars, a cool traveller’s caravan and a set of sedan chairs, which in Belfast were used in the 19th century to convey folk to parties, shows at the feature and, get this, church. Those Ulster Protestants never fail to surprise you, just as the church near where I was staying, the Fisherwick Presbyterian, had no less than a Facebook page and an app. An app! 21st century living, right enough.
Even though I only saw the Transport bit of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, I was thoroughly impressed. There was a great range of people cutting about, including tourists and local people complete with local accents, including one little boy who was getting a telling-off from his dad for telling the storyteller ‘I like boobies’. Child psychology right there.
I am sometimes guilty of comparing places to other places. That’s a natural part of thinking since it is often said that we learn by comparison and putting things in perspective as part of a wider picture. I expected the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to be like Beamish, the vast open-air museum in County Durham, though really it was like itself, proudly showing off the history of the place and its collection, bringing up memories and capturing a bygone age. Plus it has a DeLorean so the future’s covered too.