Monday, November 27, 2006

Moron Moments - Hain, Bell and Stone

Local ventriloquist doll and Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Eileen Bell, has accomplished a feat that would have previously seemed impossible. She has ensured Ian Paisley's "No," actually means "Yes."

Although Dr Paisley noted on Friday that he was in no position to make a nomination to the Northern Ireland Assembly, due to Sinn Fein's inaction on policing, Mrs Bell announced otherwise.

The question must now be asked: why did we never sieze upon Mrs Bell's powers of double-speak long ago?

With Mrs Bell leading the vanguard, Paisley would have said, "Yes," to Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. "Never, never, never!" would have been transformed into "Always, always, always!" Think of the bloodshed that would have been averted.

But, Mrs Bell was merely mouthing the words of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain. It didn’t matter what was said in the Assembly chamber; Hain and the Northern Ireland Office ensured it was translated through their own political spin machines, for their own preferred ends.

And just when things couldn’t get any more ludicrous, enter stage right, former British agent, Michael Stone, equipped with an array of accessories including nail bombs, an axe, a garotte and a gun.

The attack that followed was darkly comic, particularly the scenes where Michael Stone's glasses were knocked off and the female security guard held his legs up while he lay on the ground, shouting like a mad thing.

Stone's reappearance was akin to the reactivation of a long dormant sleeper or resurgent comic-book villain. The fans didn't see that one coming. It was like the return of the Cybermen to 'Doctor Who' in 1982. How we fell off our seats in astonishment.

Either his actions were fuelled by mental illness, the desire for further celebrity or he was guided, like Mrs Bell, by some sinister intelligence.

Whatever the motivation behind Stone’s inept attack, it has acted as a successful distraction from the serious problems faced by Mr Hain.

The Secretary of State must recognise that his ambition for the role of Deputy Prime Minister is threatened by Mr Justice Girvan's call for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the appointment of the Victims' Commissioner.

To date, there has been no serious examination of this affair by either Westminster or the London media, proving that no one over there really cares about what goes on over here.

Perhaps, now that the High Court has orderd an inquiry into the illegal actions of Mr Hain, the need for the Northern Ireland Office to produce a spectacular diversion is upon us.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Ugliest Street in Belfast

It has become a bit of a cliché to note that most people walk around cities without ever looking up at some of the architectural wonders ranged above them. I would suggest that people look down when out walking, particularly in Belfast city centre, which is home to some of the most offensive examples of street paving I have ever seen.

Castle Lane has to be the worst. Surely, there can'’t be a single person willing to defend this paving disgrace. Take a walk along Castle Lane, from Royal Avenue to Corn Market, and you'’ll see what I mean. What was once a reasonably pleasing brick-paved lane has become a patchwork mess of mismatched stones and tarmac. Where a brick has been damaged, tarmac has filled its space. Even the manhole recesses have been filled with tarmac. In one instance, where some of the bricks in a manhole recess have been damaged, we get a sloppy mix of brick and tarmac, with one brick sporting a tarmac filled hole. Click on the photograph above to increase its size and witness this atrocity.

In one place, the words 'Castle Lane' used to be etched in the paving. Now it just says 'Lane'’ as the tarmac has obliterated the rest.

The paving disaster doesn'’t stop at Castle Lane. Look at Corn Market. What is going on? As soon as the bandstand was removed, an ugly amalgam of paving bricks was quickly thrown down. The result is a slightly sloping, many-coloured, paved mound. Didn'’t anyone think to level the surface first?

It would appear morons at the Roads Service are to blame. Since the mid-1980s, it has been Roads Service practice to replace broken flagstones with tarmac, as tarmac is cheaper than any other form of paving. They don't seem to give any consideration to aesthetics.

Just last week, I noticed a tiny square of tarmac embedded in a brick pavement, close to my home. Doubtless, this square will eventually spread like a cancerous growth and spoil the rest of the pavement. Perhaps I should follow the example of 67 year-old Gary Kelly, a Turf Lodge pensioner, who recently sat on the pavement outside his home and successfully prevented Road Service replacing the broken paving stones with tarmac.

"Tarmac is just depressing to see, " said Mr Kelly. "It is only a small matter, but it's the principle of the thing."

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Moron Moments - Party Piglets

Yesterday, I saw an advert for Party Piglets and my mind flash-backed to a long-forgotten, damp evening on Victoria Street, where I once witnessed the disturbing sight of a group of morons waving and wailing from a British Army Saracen as it sped along the wet road. On recalling this moment, I felt as if a repressed abuse memory had surfaced.

On returning home, I checked out the Party Piglets website. Further horrors flickered into life on the computer screen. Here was a company that hired out British Army vehicles for the purpose of partying. These vehicles, which once cruised the streets, disgorging boy-faced soldiers with stern expressions and guns, now offered - according to the website - "the ultimate party experience."

In the 'Galleries' section, additional morons pose alongside Saracens, brandishing rifles and looking stupid. Local drag queen, Titti Von Tramp - not usually noted for her subtlety - is pictured astride an army jeep, legs akimbo. I think she is stimulating masturbation with a beer bottle in one picture, but I'm not entirely sure what might be going on. And if that's not enough, you can have a male stripper, dressed as an RUC man, if you so desire.

"The best craic I've had in years!" announces Kevin Connolly, editor of 'That's West Belfast' magazine on one of the website pages. Now, I'm sure I'd have heard of 'West Belfast Magazine' if it actually existed. I Googled it - and Mr Connolly - and came up blank. Surely the unscrupulous Party Piglets didn't invent it to give credence to their insensitive and crass enterprise?

Revisiting that rainy night in Victoria Street, I wondered how someone who had experienced the death of a loved one at the hands of the British Army might have felt on witnessing the drunk youngsters, shrieking hysterically from the speeding Saracen, feather boas fluttering in the slipstream.

Welcome to Theme-Park Northern Ireland. Here, every day's a party. Don't forget to pack your 'Lonely Planet' and don't mention the war.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Awfully Awfully at Castleward Book Fair

The Castleward Book Fair didn't advertise itself as an event where one had to pay admittance.

I pointed this out to the apologetic, elderly gentleman from the National Trust who greeted me as I arrived. He was embarrassed enough to forego the usual £3.80 per person entrancee fee and instead let me in for £1.80 - the child's fare.

Although charmed by his generous gesture, I was still somewhat disgruntled at having to pay anything into an event where I was expected to buy books, especially as the 18th Century mansion was closed to the public.

Anyway, the books were cheap and in plentiful supply. Colour stickers marked the £3 bargins from the £1 bargains and I even managed to get a copy of Ladybird's classic 'Downey Duckling' for 10p. I made my way to the pay point where elderly ladies with fixed grins and cut-glass accents rifled through the flyleaves in search of prices. I contested this attempt at flyness by pointing out the blue stickers on the spines of the books, denoting the price as £1 per book. The ladies gasped in humble apology and directed me to the bookshop next door, which I was informed held similarly priced goodies.

In the bookshop, a female customer, hobbling on a crutch, was in dialogue with another woman and a man, both of whom appeared to work in the shop. The women were dressed in tweeds and seemed to have modelled their appearances on Queen Elizabeth II. They held fixed-grin expressions and spoke with the most affected upper-class accents I've ever heard. As I made a play of browsing the shelves, I strained to ascertain the geographical location of said accents, but the feat was rendered impossible as the women's voices seemed to duel with one another to see who could sounded most royal. There was no geographical source for these voices. The entire performance was couched in crude snobbery. Irony was entirely absent.

"I wonder if you would suggest some light reading for me?" the woman with the crutch asked of the other woman. Her tone suggested she was more used to giving orders to servants.

"Why, I wouldn't know what kind of books you would like," answered the female shop assistant.

"I just need some light reading to send me to sleep," whittered the customer, ignoring the subtle protest of the other woman. "As long as it doesn't have any swear words. They're everywhere these days. It makes everything simply trying."

"One can't even go to the cinema," interjected the man, similarly accented. "It's wall to wall swear words. One for effect might be acceptable, but it's just wall to wall."

"It's dreadful," lamented the woman with the crutch, her tweed shifting uncomfortably.

"Oh look, there's one you might like," relented the female shop assistant. "'Sophie's World.'" She turned the book over and made a pretence of reading the back cover. "But who is Sophie?"

"I really need some light reading for when I get up in the night," the customer said. "We've mostly got biographies and such at home and I usually lose interest after a few chapters. I just get fed up. I really need some light reading."

"There's one. Hemmingway?"


"What about Barbara Taylor Bradford? 'Voice of the Heart'?"


"Joanna Trollope?" offered the shop assistant, examining another book, a pained expression creeping into her carefully maintained mask. "'Brother and Sister?'"

"No," the reply came, delivered in a bored tone.

"Oh, there's Dirk Bogarde."


"Oh, now look at that one," came the riposte. The shop asistant reached for a volume about the British Royal Family. She opened the pages and allowed her features to relax into quiet supplication. One would swear that sunlight poured from the photographs printed within as the general mood of the exchange improved considerably.

"Now, isn't that awfully telling," she said, pointing to a photograph. "That was taken just before they split up." She turned the book over. "It's by Jennie Bond."

"Didn't they get rid of her?" asked the woman with the crutch.

"Oh, yes," the other woman giggled. "They got rid of her, didn't they?"

"Oh, yes. They got rid of her."

"Oh, look. Kate Adie!" cried the shop woman, retreiving another book. "Philip and I are terribly impressed by her. Terribly impresed. You know, I said to my daughter, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' and she siad, 'I want Kate Adie's job.' We're terribly impressed."

"Yes," came the reply. "It's not really light reading though, is it?"

"No, perhaps not," the shop woman said, disappointed at the rejection. She looked around at the books surrounding her, a vacant expresion on her face.

"Ronnie!" she cried. "Where's Ronnie?"

Enter Ronnie stage left.

"Here he is," purred the shop woman. "I call and angels descend." She flashed a row of pointed teeth at the other woman, who absently poked a nearby box of books with her crutch.

I wondered if I should intrude and ask the woman if she would mind picking out some books for me. I relented and left the claustrophobic shop.

I got into the car and turned on the radio. Radio Ulster was playing archive audio footage of the opening of Belfast's Queen Elizabeth Bridge on 4 July 1966 by Queen Elizabeth II. The shipyard workers - explained the plum-voiced announcer - were arranged on a floating pontoon, bedecked with red, white and blue bunting. Flags waved gaily. Queen Elizabeth II "very graciously" opened the bridge. She smiled and waved at the onlookers. The crowd cheered.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Queer and Loathing in Belfast

Since it'’s festival time in Belfast, I took myself along to the newly refurbished Grand Opera House to see Alan Bennett'’s 'The History Boys'’. I'’d avoided all spoilers, including the recent film, so I had no idea what the play was about. It's certainly witty. Bennett'’s one-liners and parochial observations are reminiscent of Quentin Crisp at his most acidic or Victoria Wood at her most deadpan.

However, I was most struck by Bennett'’s rendering of the three gay characters - although I use the word '‘gay'’ somewhat loosely, as it isn'’t mentioned in the text. Instead, we have the camp pupil Posner using the more clinical 'homosexual' - a word Bennett would probably use to describe himself.

The other homosexuals include Hector, an aging and inspirational teacher and Irwin, a younger and somewhat uncertain rookie teacher.

Hector is forced into early retirement due to his propensity for fondling the genitals of his unfazed male pupils, while transporting them on his motorbike. Irwin agrees to 'suck off' a pupil, before ending up in a wheelchair after a motorcycle ride with Hector. We'’re left to speculate whether or not Hector's hand wandered in the direction of Irwin's crotch during the motorcycle ride, which left Hector dead and Irwin paralysed, although the suggestion that improper queer fondlings lead to death and disability was clear.

The play ends with a rollcall, which details the future prospects of the pupils. They all go on to great wealth and success, except (you guessed it) Prosser, who ends up alone, his only friends being those of unspecified identity on the Internet. Oh well, at least he remembered his beloved Hector.

Recently, I saw Alan Bennett appear on TV to talk about '‘The History Boys'’. He mentioned his male partner, which surprised me, as I'’d taken Bennett to be one of those characters who skirted around the issue of his sexual identity. Perhaps the autobiographical content and success of 'The History Boys' has encouraged him to be more honest.

What worries me is that Bennett'’s own self-loathing has produced a play in which heterosexual characters flourish while gays are doomed to lives as either pederasts or lonely outsiders. More worrying is that such lazy and old-fashioned cyphers are delivered to a public who hoot with laughter and rain awards on the play.

As an aside, the public image of the gay male was further reinforced by Marie Jones and Maurice Bessman in their underwhelming play 'The Liverpool Boat' which is running at The Docker’s Club in Belfast. Thankfully, the most offending scene, in which a grotesque stereotype of a gay man was wheeled out for laughs (and they laughed uproarously) has been removed following complaints. Although painful to watch this ill-judged caricature, its setting in a working-mens club added insult to injury. One hopes, like another famous Belfast ship, 'The Liverpool Boat'’ sinks without trace.