29 November 2005

Pardon my French

It's time to think about what wine you should be drinking over Christmas.

I therefore feel obliged to give some advice.

This urge has been triggered by a splendid offer just received from a mail order company. The attraction is that they don't charge any carriage to Northern Ireland. Certain companies treat us like some strange faraway off-shore province. I have no idea why.

I fancied the six-bottle case of Château le Pin. It's French so you can't go wrong. It looks nice and red. If the bottle had a more interesting shape I could bring it along to the neighbour's party.

One or two snags. The wine will not arrive before the end of 2006 and then there's the question of price – a mere £2,056.25. That is not a misprint.

Only the paramilitaries can afford booze at that price. It would seem that if you were to spill a drop on the lino the stain would we worth at least a tenner.

Obviously more research is required so I thought I should explore the County Down market and compare two local sources – names withheld to protect the filthy rich.

It's essential to acquire the special language when ordering. I quote some useful phrases from the posh shop's brochure.

An eclectic blend – zingy and fruit-driven – with a complex palate and a structured finish.

Exhibits enthusiastic fruit on the nose which leads to a soft, rounded palate with an earthy hint.

Its multi-faceted personality ­combines melon, peach and citrus fruit with fragrances of blossom and wild thyme.

Enormous on the palate but refreshing and lively.

Rich, opulent style that remains accessible with substantial depth and character.

Powerfully scented and fruit packed, with a spicy peppery backbone.

Upfront, ripe but zesty.

Bright, lively with notes of chocolate and eucalyptus.

Crisp, unwooded, full-bodied, elegant, integrated with a savoury toasted character and a good length.


I do like wine to be approachable – I would hate to have to creep up on it. And fruit simply must be enthusiastic – a touch of pepper down the backbone should help a bit. I also agree that wine must be fruit-driven and lively – we all enjoy a good laugh though I would suggest eucalyptus is better purchased at your local chemist. A good length and breadth is obviously a plus but there's no mention of height.

Let's look at the competition.

The £1.99 reds (Châton le Flore?) are already sold out so it's being enjoyed by the bucketful at a party near you. And you can understand why. It's simply bursting with oak and MDF, with an aroma of old trainers – perhaps more vesty than zesty. It's bound to be enormous on the palate.

Highly recommended with beans on toast.

I hope this guide has been helpful.


22 November 2005

On this day

The name of CS Lewis may not mean a lot to everybody but if you are of a certain vintage you may, like many children all over the world, have been brought up on his stories. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is about to appear as a blockbuster movie.

Lewis was an Oxford don and, as a famous convert from atheism to Christianity, an outstanding author and critic. Having, as it were, taken that particular journey in a slightly different direction, I was nevertheless enthralled by the Screwtape Letters – those witty pieces of the Devil's advice addressed to 'My Dear Wormwood' and signed 'Your Affectionate Uncle, Screwtape'.

Yet when CS Lewis died in 1963 he didn't get a mention. So why do I, and all of you who were fully grown at the time, remember that particular day so vividly?

It's a trick question.

The answer is that he died on the very day that President Kennedy was assassinated and, if you remember that at all, you can probably recall exactly what you were doing the moment you heard the shocking news. I do. But I'm too shy to tell you.

Today, 22nd November is the 42nd anniversary of those two events.

CS Lewis was born and brought up in Belfast. A few years ago some of us arranged to have a blue plaque put up at his childhood home – it's still there. And guess what? Up in the attic there's a wardrobe. The wardrobe of the story has since been incorporated into a piece of sculpture at the Holywood Arches.

The eclipse of CS Lewis's death tells us something about the news media and how editors select their material. But that in turn may tell us something about ourselves – it's our own peculiar appetite that mainly directs much of what the media so successfully provides. Bad news travels fastest. We hunger for it when a celebrity is involved.

On this same November date in 1997 Michael Hutchence was found dead. That was a massive news story. But then he was a rock star, his partner was Paula Yates, she had been married to Bob Geldof and . . . see what I mean?

On this day in 1990 Margaret Thatcher was booted out by her own colleagues. It was the day we found out she could shed tears.

In 1995, on this same date, the totally vile Rosemary West was sentenced for her active part in the torture and murder of 10 young women and girls, including her 16-year-old daughter and 8-year-old stepdaughter.

On this date in 2003 England won the Rugby World Cup. As long as most of our news emanates from London we shall not be allowed to forget it.

Have a nice day.

15 November 2005

Strange sounding names

Two young journalists from the Southern Caucasus, and their equally charming Ukrainian interpreter, paid me a visit recently.

They were Diane Kerselyn from Abkhazia and Karine Ohanyan from Nagomy-Karabakh, both ethnic Armenians. I think I've got the spelling right.

Such faraway places with strange-sounding names get only occasional mention in the news – perhaps only when we play them at football. (By the way, we recently beat England.)

We are not exactly sure where to find these places on the map. We may discover that they were former reluctant members of the old Soviet Union and that new-found freedom has exposed deep ethnic divisions, more ancient, more violent than our own little tribal difficulties.

Why should I be writing about them?

Perhaps because we should remind ourselves occasionally that we in Norn Irn are not the centre of the earth. We too are a small difficult-to-define region with an international reputation for you-know-what. For Diane and Karine, and much of the planet, we are a distant land with some strange-sounding names and even stranger-sounding politicians.

Our main topic of conversation was the shared problem of broadcasting to so-called 'divided communities'. I suppose I was cast as the ancient mariner whose rhymes might have reflected some sort of relevant experience. But it was I who learned the most from our meeting.

Abkhazia is a mountainous region which enjoys a degree of independence. It is not internationally recognised and not absolutely sure what its connection should be with the Russian Federation. See any parallels?

Nagomy-Karabakh is a near-100% Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim Azerbaijan, the source of ancient, violent, genocidal quarrels between Armenia and its neighbours.

And yet these two young journalist-activists share a common resolve and a common dream to lay the foundations of free speech and decent, honest and unbiased reporting within an environment totally unused to such luxuries.

Northern Ireland may still have some serious imperfections but when I sound off in this esteemed newspaper nobody will poison my food or have me arrested at dawn. At least not yet.

Unlike Diane and Karine we have no problems getting a passport – we have a choice of two. We have free un-rigged elections. We are heavily subsidised by the British taxpayer. We have been flooded with international money to help rebuild our broken communities. We have a free democratic choice in deciding our own future. We have a welfare state and, on a world scale, a high standard of living – better than many Americans.

Should we ever get round to some collective decision about our own future the international community will applaud and provide every assistance. Regrettably our own paranoia makes us suspicious of any outside proposals.

We take the money and run.

Diane and Karine could teach us a thing or two.

08 November 2005

Nothing new

'Man attacked by road rage driver' said a headline last month.

'A man suffered a fractured wrist and facial injuries after being attacked by a driver he scolded for failing to stop at a red light.'

Admit it. We have all felt like killing or maiming other drivers under certain circumstances and we have sometimes used language unsuited for inclusion in the Down Democrat.

A million miles ago I bought a new 'Hillman Imp', quite the worst product of the nation's worst industry at the time. After three replacement gearboxes and a total collapse of the electrics, and in a spirit of calm revenge, I fashioned a clear statement on the rear window. It read: 'This is the last Hillman Imp I will ever buy.'

It worked wonders.

One day on a quiet country road I was followed by a van belonging to the main Hillman distributor. The driver tail-gaited me for several miles, sounded his horn and flashed his headlamps. When the moment had come to invite him to overtake I gave him the correct legally-recommended hand signal. Perhaps a slight curling of the fingers may have led to some unintentional exposure of my true feelings towards my pursuer, because, as he passed, I thought I detected a severe case of foaming at the mouth.

Had we stopped to settle our differences it would have been a fight to the death – mine.

Recently at my village mini-roundabout I had a frank exchange of opinion with another driver, once again in terms too shocking to report – a streamlined little model with many extras. Her car was very ornate too. Her vocabulary spelled danger and she looked as if she could have packed a punch.

So it's standard advice to stay in your car, keep your windows closed, keep your doors locked, keep calm and keep your mouth shut.

Many psychological reasons have been advanced to explain road rage. There is also a recent RAC report which suggests that smell can be a factor. I shall not develop that particular theory.

Important historical note. In Greek mythology, Oedipus (he of the complex) had a dust-up with another driver on the road to Thebes. Unknown to both parties the other driver was Laius, his father, who unfortunately died of his injuries. The plot thickens. Oedipus, again unwittingly, married the other driver's widow, Jocasta. Work it out for yourselves, she was his own mother.

They had four children. When the awful truth became known, Jocasta promptly committed suicide while Oedipus allegedly blinded himself and went into exile.

This sorry tale has inspired much literature, drama, opera and oratorio ever since.

The moral would appear to be: avoid road rage if you can.

It may lead to quite serious domestic complications.