28 September 2004

Tally ho et cetera

The decision to ban the hunting of animals with hounds may not end the debate that apparently divides a nation. The plain fact is that a substantial majority in the Commons voted for the ban, reflecting, as it happens, national opinion.

The Countryside Alliance would have us believe that the issue is one of town versus country, of urban ignorance versus the true understanding of rural values.

Before I had my garden laid out at Crossgar, my few acres were invaded by a local hunt which rampaged over my property with horse and hound, did a fair amount of damage, left a lot of faeces behind (fortunately only equine and canine) and cornered a terrified hind in the river. The hind was actually a domesticated animal released to endure such regular torture all through the hunting season.

I wrote to the master of the hunt only to receive a dismissive note saying he was not aware of the incident but if the hunt should enter my property in future I should write to him to have any possible damage assessed. Incandescent with rage, I returned verbal fire, which, for reasons of delicacy, I cannot relate here.

I later joined with a hundred local farmers and landowners to take on these ‘gentlemen’, who were actually mostly residents of local town suburbia. So the town versus country argument was turned on its head – it was essentially the true countryside alliance complaining, rightly, about arrogant trespass, damage and total indifference to country ways.

But I did attend a hunt myself (once) and I must admit it was a marvellous day out. The sheer elegance of the turn-out, the gathering in early morning mist, the camaraderie, the sense of anticipation, the traditional stirrup cup and send-off, the hunting horn and the chase.

Then the return of the elated mud-spattered heroes. The ride had been particularly challenging, up though the thickly wooded hills, across boggy ground, over fences. One or two tumbles but nobody hurt. Then the sumptuous breakfast at the master’s home and not a true toff in sight. For the young and old, the rich and not-so-rich, hunting was a passion that drew a community together in true friendship.

Just one point of detail. This was Ontario and it was a drag hunt, fox hunting having been outlawed for years. No animals were hunted to exhaustion or torn to shreds.

21 September 2004

Heritage, culture and all that

The Linenhall Library and Dr Sophie Hillan of the Institute of Irish Studies were the driving force behind the recent celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of Michael McLaverty. The events reflected great affection both for the man himself and for his literary achievements. A blue plaque was unveiled at the place he loved so well at Killard. The legend was simple: Michael McLaverty, 1904-1992, writer, lived and worked here.

Dr Hillan read a wonderful letter which McLaverty had written to her when he had settled in at Killard on his retirement. Seamus Heaney read one of his own poems, about the man and the place. There were overseas scholars in attendance and the local contingent was a veritable literary who’s who. It was the largest gathering at any plaque unveiling since the Ulster History Circle – the blue plaque organisation – started its work.

Blue plaques originated in London over a hundred years ago and in England the scheme is now operated by English Heritage. They have an annual budget of £200,000 specifically for plaques. Scotland and Wales have similar organisations, and although less lavishly supported, they are also resourced, albeit indirectly, by the taxpayer. That of course includes you and me so we could say that the Northern Ireland taxpayer is contributing to English plaques to the tune of about £4,000 per year.

Do we get anything back? Not a penny.

Everybody agrees that the plaque business should operate independent of politics or government departments – as indeed happens elsewhere in the UK – but it’s hard to fathom why local Stormont departments, with titles and subtitles which feature words like ‘culture’, ‘arts’ and ‘heritage’, cannot offer anything, in spite of repeated requests. One of the more rococo refusals said that the matter did not lie within ‘operational objectives’.

In true bureaucratic fashion a substantial fee was then paid to a consultant to look at plaques and ‘signage’ generally. Rumour has it that he recommended that £5,000 should be made available for plaques but that was many months ago and, while the paper shuffles interdepartmentally, nothing is done.

So full marks to the Down District Council and the Friends of the Down County Museum whose respect for the kind of history that all of us can share has made possible the erection of commemorative plaques in our own county. Several more are planned.

Perhaps some day those civil servants in charge of Northern Ireland’s tourism, arts, culture and heritage may follow your lead.

14 September 2004

A calling from beyond the stars

From the full text of George Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican Party convention I proudly offer you the bits that got the loudest cheers. Please try to complete your reading before dozing off.

We have seen Americans in uniform storming mountain strongholds, and charging through sandstorms, and liberating millions, with acts of valour that would make the men of Normandy proud. Now, because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below. Now, because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach, and greatness in our future.

If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. . .

We have fought the terrorists across the Earth, not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake.

We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer. This progress involved careful diplomacy, clear moral purpose.

More than 50 million people have been liberated, and democracy is coming to the broader Middle East.

Iraq now has a strong prime minister, a national council, and national elections are scheduled for January.

Our nation is standing with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, because when America gives its word, America must keep its word.

Our men and women in uniform are doing a superb job for America.

Our allies know the historic importance of our work. About 40 nations stand beside us in Afghanistan, and some 30 in Iraq.

I am proud that our country remains the hope of the oppressed, and the greatest force for good on this earth.

Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel.

I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century.

We see America's character in our military, which finds a way or makes one.

Having come this far, our tested and confident nation can achieve anything.

This young century will be liberty's century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world.

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America.

Now we go forward, grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause, and confident in the future of the greatest nation on earth.

07 September 2004

Motorcycling

A very long time ago – 1950 to be exact – my brother and I took off on a great adventure. Adventures are more possible in collaboration, and with shared ambition, and that was one of the (few) real advantages of identical twin status.

By today’s standards it was nothing to write home about, but working in Croatia and Bosnia as labourers on a brave university-building scheme in the post-war chaos of communist-run Yugoslavia was big stuff. The Irish Independent commissioned an article and my photograph was everywhere – my 15 minutes of fame. Their fee was 30 shillings.

We returned to the Balkans a year or so later, this time two-up on a big clapped-out Norton 500cc motorcycle, all the bone-shaking saddle-sore way from County Down. We still recall that adventure, the sweltering heat, the vile roads, the broken frame, the disintegrated tyre, the cracked front forks, the constant search to find fuel, the amazing people, the beautiful Liliana – better stop at this point.

What we didn’t know at the time was that two Argentine students, about our own age, Ernesto (of Irish descent) and Alberto, were on a Norton motorcycle adventure on the other side of the world.

Ernesto’s ‘Motor Cycle Diaries’ is an account of that amazing journey across South America. It totally eclipses my own little jaunt but I consumed every word of it with a special insightful pleasure. Brilliantly observed, sympathetic – and gently humorous – the real journey takes place inside his head, from disaffected middle-class student to rebel with a cause.

You’ve guessed. Ernesto was to become ‘Che’ Guevara, brother-in-arms of Fidel Castro. Captured in Bolivia with the help of the CIA he was shot four times in the head in cold blood. For 40 years he has been a sex symbol, heroic victim and the ultimate poster icon of revolutionary chic. ‘Che lives’ appeared on walls in Paris, Prague, Berkeley – and Belfast.

At the Cannes Film Festival this year the Spanish language Los Diarios de Motocicleta won the Ecumenical Prize which annually recognises ‘works of high artistic quality that bear witness to cinema's ability to reveal humanity in all its depth, mystery, anxiety, darkness, and hopes.’

They would say that wouldn’t they. One other account says it’s ‘a buddy/road movie in which Ernesto and Alberto are looking for chicks, fun and adventure before they must grow up and have a more serious life’
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So I’m not sure I want to see it. It might blot out my memory of the book though I wouldn’t mind seeing that old lusty, rusty, marvellous, maddening, mendacious Norton 500 again.