April 10th, 2010


Horses, hotels, bookshops and fighting crime

A few odd things happened over the last two days (which have been spent en route to and in my native city, for a school reunion which will be described in another post).

On the way to the airport, we ran into some congestion on the E40 - not itself an unusual occurrence; but then galloping along the hard shoulder towards us came a horse, trailing blue restraints and followed discreetly by a police car. The traffic jam continued for another couple of km, and then we found its cause: a jack-knifed and battered horse-box, with another horse standing calmly beside the road. At least I was able to say that evening that wild horses (well, a wild horse) couldn't stop me coming to Belfast for the event.

I had booked into a B&B owned by a past teacher who was offering a discount rate for returnees like myself - I may well have been the only one who took advantage of the offer. But I arrived to find that mysterious "maintenance problems" meant my room was not available. (I noted the presence of a large wedding party in the bar, and drew my own conclusions.) However, they had rebooked me - at the discounted rate - into the Europa Hotel, which was at one point the only top-quality hotel in Belfast and also the most bombed hotel in Europe. It has competition now on the former point (and has long since been overtaken by the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo on the latter) but is still pretty luxurious, so I didn't complain too much. Much less handy for the reunion, but Belfast is a small city where taxis are inexpensive.

Today I tried a trawl through the bookshops of Belfast, but was very disappointed; lean pickings in Waterstone's and Forbidden Planet, and most of the second-hand shops have gone; every single one of the cluster of about half a dozen from Harry Hall's in Smithfield down to the arcade in North Street has closed. I walked over to the charity shops on Botanic Avenue, and then to Book Finders on University Road, but was a bit unimpressed by the range of books available. I'd have thought that the recession might encourage people to offload books onto the second hand market, but I guess the downturn in purchasers' available resources has a bigger impact.

Except in Book Finders, where I got more than I had bargained for. Sitting outside with a cup of tea, three new books, and a friend, we spotted two other customers running out of the shop - one had stolen the other's handbag. She had intercepted him just at the pedestrian crossing; I ran over to lend a firm grip to persuade the rather incompetent and demoralised thief to return to the shop while the owner called the police, and I then guarded the front door until they arrived (which they did pretty rapidly, coming from Donegall Pass). They duly arrested him for attempted theft, and took everyone else's names and addresses for future statements (though I will be surprised if they bother calling me in Belgium; my friend actually had a better view of what happened than I did). We had a good chat with the owners of both the shop and the handbag; not the first theft from there, alas, though the first time I can recall performing a citizen's arrest (if that is what I did).

Well, home tomorrow, hoping for a quieter journey (and praying that the Curse Of Heathrow will not afflict me this time).

School Reunion

I've been back in Belfast for a reunion of those of us who (more or less) started in Rathmore Grammar School in 1978 and left in 1985, 25 years ago.

I think everyone there was aware that this event was an intense, weird and probably unrepeatable experience; we have all changed in the quarter-century since we turned 18, and of course so has Northern Ireland. Out of 150 or so in our year, around 120 showed up, all I think with a mixed sense of curiosity and apprehension. But it was strangely excellent.

In the run-up to the event I had a nagging worry that I might get trapped near the bar by someone who I didn't know especially well and didn't want to talk to (a generic someone - nobody particularly in mind) but in fact everyone seemed to feel the same pressure to mingle. Pretty much everyone was using the opportunity to talk to people they hadn't seen in 25 years, rather than just hang out with those they still see regularly. Even so, I know that I left after four and a half hours wishing I had talked to more people. (I wimped out not long after midnight; I imagine it kept going for another hour or two.)

I was amazed by how well most of us had aged. (One or two must surely be keeping portraits of their older degenerate selves in the attic.) We men had in general aged less gracefully, I thought; hair loss and greying making us look distinguished if we are lucky. Though the Head Boy of our year still looks cherubic, if a little careworn. He, poor lad, was called on to make a speech late in the evening when most of us had been there for several hours. I don't think any sound system could have helped his voice be heard against the background of two and a half decades of catchingup on gossip.

A couple of brave trailing spouses had come too, thrust into a social setting where nobody was very interested in talking to them. The cliche is of course that people use these occasions to hook up with old flames; I did enjoy chatting to those I had snogged back in the day, but nothing further was likely to happen - at least one of them had completely forgotten our brief encounter, and for something that seemed so important at the time I confess the details have mostly slipped my mind too.

There were some moments of sadness. The event which sparked the organisation of the reunion had been the death about a year ago of one of our classmates; and while most of us have now become parents, a lot of us have also lost parents, and others (such as the older sister who used to babysit for us, long ago). We are all of course in our early forties; speaking only for myself, I've had the worst health I can remember over the last year, with back problems in June, bad flu last month, my continuing dental hassles and the less drastic but psychologically significant experience of getting bifocals.

But for me this was a very affirming experience. Partly it was just that spending an evening with people who are all exactly my age, for the first time since the final school disco (held for some reason in a small club on Donegall Square, rather than the more usual Greenan Lodge Hotel), made me feel that 42 isn't actually all that old. Partly also that I felt a sense of integrating my roots. I've moved further away from Belfast than most of my fellow pupils (one other attendee had come from Italy; a couple of no-shows are across the Atlantic), and my father is twenty years dead, my mother lives in Dublin, my sister in France and my brother in Massachusetts. But the years I had shared with the people I saw last night were an important part of making me who I have become, and it seemed right and appropriate, and slightly wonderful, to raise a glass or three to celebrate that.

Edited to add: A trailing spouse writes.