Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Parting Glass

We have known the Reverend Colin Hall-Thompson for many’s a year, and on this day the man was on the form of his life. I suppose you could call it merciless, but the well-spoken ex-soldier with the grey beard was calling the bluff of one of his former parish members, rampaging down a list of charges the length of your arm. And it was impressive rap sheet, that’s for sure.

“Your first attempt at building a boat failed; it sank in five feet of water in Lough Neagh. But then again, you did try to chat to the Pope that one time in Rome a few years ago. This from a man of the Church of Ireland, too!”


The Reverend went on like this for some time, encouraged by peals of laughter from those who were in the know and drawing looks of astonishment from those who were not. To be fair, the ‘dressing down’, as my Ma and her pal would put it, was more than deserved. Colin and my Father had met way back in the day, their paths crossing frequently over the years, with the embarrassing occasion when Dad played a butler in a church pantomime best forgotten about… But not all the escapades and misadventures were of a religious nature, far from it. Most of the stories were strange occurrences in faraway places, and not one was predictable or in any way logical.

“…riding an elephant through a Nepalese jungle… while tracking tigers.”
“…being chased by a machete in the hills of Madeira.”
“…taking your infant son up Mount Etna.”
“…and searching for bison, or bison bison athabascae to be precise, in the forests of central Canada.”

And so it went for quite a while, different details each time, but consistently bizarre throughout. By lunchtime, some of those who had been listening to the Reverend earlier in the day found themselves elsewhere, namely at the business end of a bottle of whiskey, drinking like demons while lying sprawled under the hot June sunshine. But these wake-going socialites were not the entire deal. A group of “more savory”, individuals was also enjoying the blue skies of this corner of rural Ulster. In another corner of the garden, a collection of fancifully festooned post-church party-goers was feasting on a table-load of ham, chicken, pies and spuds placed under a parasol, while by the greenhouse lingered a group of awkward, post-university young professionals trying to fit in. A few particularly inspired folk had got their hands on some guitars, while yet others were gathered around a table on the patio debating rugby. Strange words, feigned derision and claps of laughter were exchanged; it all seemed rather jolly. But then again, aqua vitae was involved.

By the end of the night I found myself up in the pub beside the five-way crossroads, one of the last reeling members of an otherwise long-extinguished party. One more, I cried, one more, before rising to my feet and lurching in the direction of the Black Bush. Grinning at my latest acquisition, I ran from the bar and hopped the fence, clutching my glass of fire water all the while. But when my feet touched the ground on the other side, all the mindless giddiness suddenly stopped. The graveyard was silent, cold, dark. It was different somehow, hauntingly empty. It was not unfriendly. It had no discernible emotion, it was just there.

I walked down the hill to where we all had stood many hours earlier, gathered together in strength and fragility, watching as the man was finally laid to rest. The wicker coffin had been a nice touch, the inspiration of my pseudo-hippie Mother, while dressing him in his flat cap, gilet and cords was a family effort. As was the decision to fill the basket with essential treasures for Dad to take across the divide: dog biscuits for when his faithful Jack Russell eventually follows; keys without locks that might find their partners in the great unknown; a collection of old stones; and a whisk, just in case.

But the dark causes the brain to take a different look at things, and I was surprised to feel that the grave, and indeed the cancer that took him, meant nothing. The site where he lay was just another patch of dry earth in a field of short grass, the disease but an insignificant footnote to a life well lived. Thinking nothing else of it, I tossed the whiskey onto the pile of settling dirt, pushed the glass deep into mud beneath, and set-off down the hill.

I laughed, I smiled, I sang.

There were other stories to tell.                                                                                           

Monday, 18 February 2013

Birdspotting: Green Week in The Lee Valley

Day One: Monday 11 February 
Bitterly cold evening! Flakes of snow are fluttering around here and there, but the sun is out so all is well. The Canada geese are gathering on the flatlands by the riverside, but other than that it is a very quiet evening in the Lee River Valley. Unusual not to see swans; they're probably downstream in the sheltered reeds. 

© Amadeus Finlay



Day Two: Tuesday 12 February 
Well now! What a hive of activity we have this evening. Scores of mallard ducks are circling the reserve, while the resident moorhens are strutting about in the long grasses and mud banks searching for insects and snails. Earlier I saw one of the local buzzards take a covetous glance at a coot, but seemingly he thought better of it and swooped off to the north. Still no swans… 

© Amadeus Finlay


Day Three: Wednesday 13 February 
The evening started well as I was greeted by a starling on the patio before I headed down to the reserve. So what do we have tonight? Well, apart from a handful of mallards, the river is very quiet. A set of fresh badger prints are sunk into the mud around the far side of the lake, but they lead deep into the woods beyond so I decide not to follow them. 

© Amadeus Finlay

Day Four: Thursday 14 February 
Happy Valentine's Day! Taking a romantic walk with my (much) better half and lo and behold… swans! Everywhere! It is a bright, warm evening and they are poking about in the brush, swimming across the lake and generally causing mischief everywhere. The Canada geese are also about, but so are a whole host of dippers, divers and cormorants. Plus, what a sunset! 
© Amadeus Finlay

Day Five: Friday 15 February 
It's a weekend night, so I am going to stay out late. The buzzards pop-up around sunset and circle upon the rising thermals rising from the hills off to the west. Some ducks fiddle about in the undergrowth, but there is nothing much else to report until a fox appears among the reeds… much to the consternation of the moorhens. But there is no interaction between the red-backed prowler and the little divers, and he soon skulks off. 

© Amadeus Finlay



Day Six: Saturday 16 February 
Taking the whole day today. I arrived at the reserve around 9am, and in the past two hours I have seen scores of mallards, more swans than you could point a stick at (good news!), a particularly vocal group of cormorants and, to my eternal pleasure, a firecrest. A few waders get into an argument around 3pm, but the undignified arrival of a Canada goose soon scatters the little birds. Sunset is the highlight of the day, triggering as it does a great chorus of sound to echo up and down the valley as the feathered population prepares for dusk. 

© Amadeus Finlay


Day Seven: Sunday 17 February 
Herring gulls. Everywhere is bloomin' herring gulls. Noisy, obnoxious and rowdy. At least the arrival or a chiffchaff gives me something nice to listen to. They really have got such a pretty song voice. Pity about the herring gulls…

© Gary Redhead


Monday, 8 October 2012

The Prague Experience: 75-Minutes in a Central-European Airport

I’ve never actually been to Prague.
I have been to the airport.
But I’ve never actually been to Prague.
if you see what I mean 

I was on my way home from Macedonia (how often do you get to say that?), and had to switch planes in the Czech Republic in order to facilitate my return. But with only 75-minutes between flights, any chance of exploring the capital was very much ‘out the window’. 

Not that I was going to allow this minor setback to defeat me, especially since Rule 89f of the Traveller’s Code states that, ‘a connecting flight is a whimsical and unacceptable excuse for failure.’ Instead I concocted a cunning plan to remedy the issue: with some clever use of airport resources, I was going to artificially recreate the feel of the city in all its glory right here in the comfort of Terminal 2. 

It was an optimistic plan, however, as airport resources are the single most frustrating thing known to mankind. Though they are seductively promising due to the variety of businesses, the range and quality of the products are somewhat up for question. Also, they never stock what you want unless you’re seeking a kilogram bag of sweets or a teddy bear dressed in national costume. 

© Amadeus Finlay

Nevertheless, I decided to persevere and so made a bee-line for a bar with hazy views of a very distant Prague. I ordered a local lager beer, a bag of pretzels and a plate of local meats. I pretended to read a Czech language newspaper. I smoked a cigarette given to me by an old man with a moustache and a fedora. Yes, you could still smoke inside. Then came the ceremonial acquisition of cardboard bar mats, in this case Pilsner Urquell, before I headed outside to inhale the air and pick up a handful of dirt. 

Now, this may sound like utter madness - and I assure you that it most certainly is - but I am on a mission to collect soil from every country on the planet. The idea is that after many years of bumming about the place I will be able to fulfil my desire to own a representative cross-section of the world. 

Which will be housed in a Bushmills whiskey bottle, kept in a box, and stored in a Northern Irish attic. 

But I digress… 

© Amadeus Finlay

The air was crisp and sharp, and the sky a vibrant swash of icy blue. But on a day such as this the ground was inevitably frozen, so I had to scrape the topsoil with my passport to get it to shift. This of course looked like the height of madness to anybody who witnessed my endeavours, but since my mantra is, ‘so long as you haven’t yet been arrested, proceed’, I was not worried. When the soil rummaging project was eventually complete and the crowds of onlookers had dispersed, I dusted myself off and dandered back indoors to pay homage to that great rigmarole that is gaining re-entry to an airport. 

“Why were you outside?” 

“Did you have any other reason to be outside aside from the reason you gave?” 

“Do you have any bags checked in?” I told him I’d gone to indulge in pedology, before changing tack altogether and asking whether or not it would be possible for him to stamp my passport. 

It transpired that it was not, and that asking the question had been foolish as this lead to me becoming the subject of further interrogation. A bag search and some intimate frisking followed before the guard decided I was less a threat to national security and more an eccentric - but harmless - nutcase, and so permitted me to proceed back to departures. I checked my watch: 24-minutes until the connection. 

Time to get a move on. I jogged to the nearest newsagent and bought a handful of postcards and a Czech dictionary. A flurry of yarn-spinning followed as I told the recipients of the postcards that I was, ‘in Prague and having a great time.’ Suitably vague, suitably suggestive, and suitably in line with the plan. Another objective reached. 

I then sprinted to departures – 12-minutes to go - and flicked open the dictionary. Page 69, the Czech word for objectionable: problematický. More flicking… page 24, the Czech word for conundrum: hádanka. Unconventional, but better than nothing. Satisfied that I had done my synthetic Prague experience justice, I stepped forth to join the queue to the boarding desk for the flight to London. 

But not before I introduced myself to the flight manager as Objectionable Conundrum...


Sunday, 30 September 2012

My Arse and Parsley: An Anecdotal Eulogy

When I was 7 years old I accidentally set fire to my father's glasses case.

By accidentally what I mean is that I was testing the old adage that leather doesn't burn, but I assure you it was all in the name of science.

Gripped with panic, I impulsively threw the case in the river before spending the next three nights desperately constructing an elaborate excuse to defer the blame. When the inevitable, 'has anybody seen my glasses case?' was raised at dinner four days later, I informed the family that I'd seen dad set them down at the peat bog, but hadn't said anything as I had assumed he picked them up.

Little did I know, I was already fucked.

© Amadeus Finlay, 2012 

An extended pause followed, before my father, his eyes all-knowing, uttered the immortal words:

'My arse and parsley.'

I feigned innocence. What had I done? What did this mean? Did dad know something I didn't? Of course he did. Unbeknownst to me, dad had been down river that day, chasing some fine Antrim Glens rainbow trout along the banks of the Six Mile. When the devilish mistress that is fate had brought the charred remains into his path, there was only one explanation; that damn wee lad.

So here I was, caught, trapped, and telling tall tales. But wait a minute... how did he know it was me? I mean, of course I was guilty - who else would have done it -, but there was still reasonable doubt (I had learned this expression at a young age, the son of a law lecturer mother).

Simple. In my hurry I had failed to notice the charred cleaning cloth falling out of the glasses case as I fled my bedroom. And why hadn't I noticed it? It had fallen into the heap of unwashed laundry stuffed behind the door. So, what did I learn from all this?

Well, firstly, never lie to a cunning father, secondly, washing machines exist, and thirdly, 'my arse and parsley' is perhaps the finest expression ever uttered by a mortal man.

© Amadeus Finlay, 2012

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cow Bells and Crucifixes: Travels in the Swiss Alps

I have a terrible fear of Julie Andrews, and let me tell you why. 

As a child I attended a school that owned only three entertainment videos, and those were Jesus of Nazareth, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Sound of Music. But none got as much viewing time as The Sound of Music. 

Oh, how it haunted me, that operatic foghorn of a soprano in a striped apron, spinning atop grassy Alpine knolls clutching a guitar. It wasn’t long until the mere threat of Andrews’ voice made me shudder, and the sight of the woman cause feelings of dread that permeated to my shoes. 

In my childlike confusion, I found comfort in fearing the Alps, reasoning that if I never went there I would be safe. But a few months back I had the pleasure of visiting Zurich for the first time, during which I concluded that the Alps don’t actually exist due to the fact that dense cloud had hidden all trace of their presence. This was rather convenient of course, as it allowed me to earmark this vibrant little city as one of the world’s finest without the threat of Rodgers and Hammerstein. No Alps, no fear. 

Yet over time I realised the absurdity of my conclusion, and that what I was doing was running from my fear rather than confronting it. No, I should go back to try again I decided. Cartographers are rarely wrong when it comes to mountain ranges. 

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

The film may have been shot in Austria, but where better to sort things out than my new-found best friend, Switzerland? 

It was because of this that I found myself in the Alpine foothills somewhere in the vicinity of St. Gallen, gazing upon the crystal-clear slopes of the Alps rising but miles from where I stood. Being prone to getting lost, however, I had decided to hire guide. She was a local girl, born just across the lake in the German town of Lindau. I had begun the day there, sipping on espresso in a certain Café Amadeus. But now things were different, no time for leisure up here. No, we were to go hiking, the guide insisting on leading us on a route rising ever higher into the sky. 

Marina - for this was her name - was a girl of purpose and experience, and she set a blistering pace as stormed up the slopes in her size 5 hiking boots. It was a hot day, and needless to say I soon fell behind. Within half an hour I was alone, and, you’ve guessed it, lost. 

But I couldn’t have cared less. 

Just like Zurich, rural Switzerland drips character and exudes charm. Rolling, tightly-knit hills sweep into fairy-tale glades populated by roving cows with their necklace bells. Alpine flowers, exploding with colour, poke through hill-tops crowned with evergreens and gorse. But it is the dong-dong calls of cow bells that dominate, and from every side a bovine rhythm section provides a dogged pulse to the riffing chorus of bird song. 

When Marina eventually tracked me down an hour later I was to be found in a happy daze at the summit, gazing inanely at a wooden signpost of the crucified Christ. Carved on its top was the elevation of the hill –1,045 metres –, and at its base a metal box for comments and reflections. How wonderful, I thought, I bet Everest doesn’t have this. Verging on ecstatic, I ripped out a page from my notebook and scribbled a note for posterity: First man from Ballyclare to reach the summit (or so I would assume). 

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

Stunning view, lovely people, and the Alps most do certainly exist. Oh, and thank you for having kept Julie Andrews in her box. Happy to have laid my childhood fears to rest, I rejoined Marina and headed down the hill for a drink. 

There was a cafe in Lindau with my name on it.

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Connolly’s Irish Bar: Time Square, New York. 1.55am.

“Do you know that song ‘Sex is on Fire’?” asks the girl at the bar, shouting to be heard over the reeling sounds of The Dubliners, “Yeah, Kings of Leon. It always sounded like a vaginal disease to me.”

I don’t even know her name.

 “Where are you from, anyway?” she continues, mouthing the words rather than saying them.

“Just outside Belfast,” I yell, my face inches from her eardrum.

“You’re actually Irish?” (big grin)   

“Sure am,” I tell her, for this is the truth, “I have been all my life.”

A big cheer erupts from the far corner. It transpires that Meath has taken the lead against Kerry in the GAA. There is a rush towards the bar, “Guinness!” “Guinness!” “Two Guinnesses and a bag of pretzels!”

I turn my attention back to the girl in the white vest for she has no interest in hurling.

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

“Do you see that drawing on the wall?” I ask, pointing to a sketch of Lough Neagh, “that’s where my Da’ and I used to going fishing.” Pause… “Have you ever been to the Ireland yourself then?”

“No! I would love to go,” she responds, all misty eyed and dreamy.

“Ah,” says the rogue, “well maybe you should come over with me some day. We can climb Slemish and gaze upon the coast of Scotland from atop the rolling moss of Shill-na-vogy.”

 …Whack for my daddy-o there’s whiskey in the jar.

An untimely roar prevents my friend with the brown pigtails falling for the Blarney, her cue for an impulsive response drowned out by a cacophony of jigging and head-banging across the bar. The excited splurge rolls towards us, a burly six footer with a Meath shirt making a beeline for my pint of Harp. Which he summarily knocks into and spills all over the brilliant white perfection that is the girl’s vest.

“This is Gucci you fucking asshole!”

“And this is fucking polyester!” he roars back, tugging on his green and orange garb.

I’m in trouble now, caught between a drunkard and a female scorned. Needless to say the girl storms off, taking her coat and exiting my life forever. But much more pressing is that she has left me at the mercy of a Leinsterman with the rhythmic talents of a drunken giraffe.

“Come ahead now,” he barks, “she had a face that could haunt houses!”

He points at my half-drunken beer.

“Get that down yerself there and stop being a miserable schnack.” And with that off he goes into the evening, grabbing hugs from random strangers by the bar and raising toasts to heroes of Irish culture:

“Up yours Bono! Long live The Corrs!”

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

Somebody crashes into a barstool, but quickly recovers and orders a round of Glenfiddich. The barman asks the man if he’s drunk. The drunk assures him he is not, and solemnly promises to order a further round so he can prove his loyalty to the establishment. Which he dutifully does, before spinning around and crashing into the six-foot giraffe from Leinster. Chaos, whiskey everywhere. A disagreement is met, during which the aggrieved parties practise the time-tested art of drunken cross-examination by taking it in turn to accuse the other and protest personal innocence.

But it transpires that neither man was in the wrong, and so they step outside to share stories and chain-smoke a pack of French cigarettes.

What a marvellous place. The wood is polished, the music’s loud, and the clientele madder than a sackful of bicycles. It has the energy of a hyperactive Labrador as well as more shamrocks than the wallpaper in Michael Flatley’s bedroom. It’s a bit like Ireland looked in the mirror, fell in love, had a child, and sent it to New York to become a tavern.

Which can only be a good thing if you ask me. 

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011