Friday, 23 October 2015

The Play's The Thing

During October, T and I have seen a play a week. We’ve enjoyed being avid theatregoers. All of the plays we saw are featured in the Belfast Festival. They all have been very different in their approach and some have worked much better than others.

We started off with ‘The Night Alive’ by Conor McPherson at the Lyric. Despite the excellent acting, Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan in particular, and direction, a series of well staged exits and entrances to a scruffy bedsit in Dublin, I came away disappointed. The characters were all somewhat stock: the struggling antihero, his devoted best mate, the tart with a heart, the father figure, the threatening outsider. Too much time was spent building the two central characters, which we know anyway, and not enough on the development of the other characters who remained as sketches. The drama of their interactions suffered as a consequence. Conor McPherson is very good at dialogue and is an excellent director, but I felt there was a much better play straining to get out.

Next was ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Grand Opera House, based on the book by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. I have nothing but praise for this play: a compelling story told from the point of view of an autistic teenager that is very well acted, an extremely innovative square set with spectacular back projection, fantastic sound and lighting design, and excellent direction that took us from the garden of a house in Swindon to Central London. No wonder this play has won a series of major theatre awards in London and New York. We rarely get touring theatre of the highest calibre in Belfast. Well done to the Belfast Festival for helping to bring the National Theatre here. The play was almost sold out a month beforehand and we only managed to get seats in the gods.

Finally we saw ‘To Break the Window of Opportunity’ by Campo at the MAC. This was experimental theatre from a pair of young Dutch performance artists: a spare set with a painted rear canvas of a desert with cultural icons inserted into the landscape, odd home-made wooden props that were brought onto stage and animated in unusual ways by the two performers, excellent sound design and no speech at all. It was like seeing a strange silent movie that presented a series of cultural rituals and then subverted them in interesting ways. I found it curious and stimulating. There were only about twenty people at the performance we attended. The play deserved much better than that.

It’s been a fine way to spend our weekday evenings, I came away feeling that we needed to do this more often.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Tour of Lough Neagh

Much beloved by eels, ornithologists and Seamus Heaney, it’s the largest freshwater lake in these islands. The lough measures 150 square miles, is up to 80 feet deep and mythologically was formed from horse urine. Oddly enough it provides around forty percent of Ulster’s water supply and is also used as a sewage outfall. There is a cycle route around it called the Loughshore Trail. After I began to cycle again this route lodged in the back of my mind as a challenge that I would one day like to have a go at. After six months of regular cycling and encouraged by our Indian Autumn, that day came.

The night before my attempt on lapping the lough, I went to stay at T’s in order to be nearer the start. I got up at 7am and put my cycling clothes on. Trouble was I couldn’t find my leggings. I’d forgotten to pack them. I wouldn’t be able to do the ride in just my cycling knickers, so I wolfed down my porridge and drove hastily back to my house. After toast and tea there I set off for Portadown and parked up at Tesco by the Bann. I began the ride just before 10, over an hour late, knowing I would be up against time pressures for the rest of the day.

It was another calm Autumn day and a light wind was behind me for the first part of the ride. I sped out past Drumcree and crossed into Tyrone by the footbridge at Maghery. I made good time to Ardboe (23 miles) and stopped beside the high cross for a break and an invocation to the spirits for success in my attempt. Up to now, most of the way had been on small back roads and tracks but near Ballyronan I came out onto a busy road and stayed on it until approaching Toome. Here I found even busier roads, with large trucks roaring past. I was tired, hungry and drizzle began to fall.

The main street of Toome (37 miles) has many empty shops but one good wee cafe, Grans. After wolfing down a fine bowl of stew with wheaten bread I had no real time for a rest. Happily the drizzle had also stopped as I headed on. The route turned into the wind but also onto back roads towards Cranfield. My lunch was weighing on me but I pressed on to Randalstown (48 miles) with its impressive stone viaduct and castle gate. Then the route was alongside the main road into Antrim, after some miles of air pollution there were attractive park gardens down to the lough. I stopped at the Loughshore Cafe (54 miles) for coffee and a scone. I was feeling pretty tired, it was 3.30pm and I still had over 30 miles to go. The sun came out and I pressed on.

From the cafe the route followed a narrow trail through woodland. But only part of me enjoyed the verdant scene, I was also worried about getting a puncture and my stomach was a little sore. Coming out of the woods near Greenmount, I went along another busy road and turned down onto backroads again that followed the shore to Ardmore. My stomach was cramping up. I stopped but found it hard to drink or eat. I made myself eat half a banana and take a mouthful of water. I pressed on. The cramps got worse. There was something definitely wrong with that scone.

Near Crumlin I headed along a busy road with homegoing traffic then down on backroads to the shore again. My guts were rebelling on me. Groaning, I stopped for a call of nature in a field near Portmore but it gave me only temporary relief. My stomach still ached and my lungs were getting sore. I stopped again at Bartins Bay, the light was closing in. After that I limped along, my sore guts and lungs complaining, especially on the hills. I got to T’s house just before dark, parked the bike and flopped into the kitchen. She had made a big meal for me. My stomach was so sore it was several hours before I could eat anything. All I could manage at first were rehydration salts. She had also bought me a splendid bunch of celebration lilies, they had a marvellous scent.

After our late meal I conked out and slept fitfully but long. The next day I felt reasonably well, ate a lot and did a gentle walk with T around Brownlow Park. I’d cycled 85 miles with 2300 feet of climbing at 11.7 mph. The ride around the lough had taken me 9 hours and I’d visited five of the six counties of NI. This was the furthest I’d ridden for ten years, I was delighted with myself.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Harvest

A sweet aroma began to assail my nostrils. Toast, I mused and continued searching the internet. The smell got stronger and more acrid. Something was burning. And I wasn’t making any toast. I leapt up and raced into the kitchen. The large pan on the hob was black at the edges. Apples, marrow and ginger were boiling madly. Making jam, I’d put the mixture on low. Then I’d completely forgotten it. And an unwatched pot always boils. I rescued what I could of the mixture and put it into a new pot. Adding more apples and ginger, I finished making the jam. It turned out bronze in colour with an intriguing smoky flavour. But there were only three jars.

This year the harvest has been late and not very good. We picked the apples from my tree three weeks later than usual. The tree only produced about a third of its normal crop. And many of the apples were pecked by birds (mainly magpies I think), hence their use for jam. Added to this, the blackberries in the hedgerow were also late and few were ripe enough to eat. Whilst there were plenty of fruits on the briars, most were still green or red.  Despite the relatively mild autumn thus far, we are still suffering the legacy of the coldest summer for twenty years.

In such a year, our early ancestors would have been worrying about how to survive this oncoming winter and praying to whatever deities they could muster to help them. Their norm would be to feast on the harvest of fresh wild food, getting as fat as they could. They needed these extra layers to help them through a winter of cold, dwindling food stocks and privation. These were not called thin times for no reason.  

I was reminded of this practice by reading an article about a modern day hermit who had lived unseen in a tent in the woods of Maine. He managed to get through the very hard winters there for thirty years by using this ancient strategy. As he didn’t want to be discovered, he did not build a fire. During the freezing cold winter he became nocturnal. To be active at night was the best way to keep warm; he could sleep during the less cold days. To go to sleep at night would be dangerous, it might be a rest from which you would never wake.

Despite living this hard life, the hermit never got ill. Although, when he was discovered he looked much older than his years. This sort of outdoor life leaves its toll on the body. Our ancestors invariably died young. Reaching your thirties would have been considered old age. I finish reading the article, turn up the central heating, switch on the electric blanket and snack on toast with home-made jam. Modern life is easy in comparison.